The Wobblies (1979) — There is Power in the Band of Workingmen When They Stand Hand in Hand
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, it’s our last of the 1979 trio this year with a documentary about one of the great American unions, its story told by the octo- and nonagenarians who were there for the free speech fights and withdrawls of efficiency in the 1910s. Featuring various members of the Industrial Workers of the World, it’s The Wobblies by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer! Stand and be counted!
Best buckle in. I refer to these quickie overviews of relevant historical information as crash courses, but in this case it’s gonna be so sloppy as to better remind one of piledriving a jet airliner into a barren mountain peak at mach 5. Went and caught COVID again this last week, so the brain meats are all woOoOoOo.
Founded in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has its roots in frustrations with the craft union tactics of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) — being a belief in organizing unions only for skilled trades while leaving those in quote-unquote “unskilled” positions and of non-privileged backgrounds to fend for themselves, and working closely with management and owner classes to broker favor for union leaders — alongside outrage at lethal violence directed towards unions like the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). From their Continental Congress of the Working Class in Chicago was born the idea of a union which would represent and champion workers of all trades, all industries, all sexes, all nationalities, no discrimination amongst their number so long as members were willing to stand and march for their rights as laborers. Moreover, under the guidance of nominal leaders like Big Bill Haywood, Eugene V. Debs, Thomas J. Hagerty, and numerous others, the IWW set an endgoal of not merely giving the working class a voice in the present wage-driven system, but ending the need for strikes and collective bargaining by ending the wage system itself, placing control of production back into the hands of those who run it. Towards this end, they believed in the necessity of One Big Union, allowing members to register with multiple unions in hopes they could fold the lot into the IWW until all workers at home and abroad were united in a single thunderous voice, one so mighty they could overturn the masters’ grip on their ill-gained wealth and power, and lead the working class into a self-determined tomorrow.
Naturally such lofty goals and opposition to one of the central union bodies of their time resulted in a great many splits in the IWW’s body as disagreements on how to make these goals reality piled higher, exacerbated as the rise of similar yet distinct systems of syndicalist and socialist thought drew founding members to different organizations, and a major 1907 dispute with the WFM resulted in a split that cost the IWW half its membership. Nonetheless, the IWW proved an influential force in union organization and direct action for some twenty years following its foundation, with central policies like the expansion of strike tactics to include the likes of intermittent striking and purposeful slowdowns, street corner soapboxing and engaging in free speech fights by violating anti-soapboxing ordinances en masse until city jails were overwhelmed, and organizing the unemployed catching national headlines and winning them numerous victories all cross the American continent. The Lawrence textile strike of 1912 is theirs, as is the 1913 Paterson silk strike, and the only meaningful opposition to the 1917 Bisbee miner deportation. A goodly number of popular protest songs originate in their Little Red Songbook, largely penned by the likes of the martyred Joe Hill and Harry McClintock, and it’s many a US community with deeply embedded memories of thousands of Wobblies (a nickname of uncertain origin) singing these long into the night as a means of general disruption. Their official avoidance of violence was not enough to prevent individual members from taking up arms or local officials taking advantage of a general perception of Wobblies as violent to open fire on little pretense, but the overall philosophy of solidarity amongst a working class whose members are well-educated, well-organized, and well-positioned to leverage their collective power with no compromise echoes across the century as the ideal state of unified labor today.
Alas, for their all their infamy and influence, the organization also saw frequent and massive turnover in membership from month to month, regularly struggled to maintain their gains in areas where they struck victories, spent a considerable amount of time and energy warring with other unions who would not concede control of a region to Wobbly interests, and garnered a pretty bad reputation amongst press and government officials alike, as might be expected from a group who made popular scapegoats for violent authoritarian crackdowns like the Centralia massacre. This reputation especially led to widespread persecution via show trials for anyone identified as an influential figure in the union when their decision to publicly oppose the United States’ entry into the Great War was deemed treasonous, and though membership did peak in the early twenties, the departure of near all important figureheads via either deportation or self-exile, further splintering amongst remaining leadership between Detroit and Chicago chapters, and relentless strikebreaking from AFL chapters working with the government to harm the IWW effectively broke the their power by decade’s end. To the eyes of many, the Wobblies died as a meaningful force in American labor less than a quarter-century after their founding, and the future of unionization lay in other hands.
Of course, the IWW never truly went away. Despite J. Edgar Hoover’s citing them as a prime example of how relentless government persecution can leverage internal strife to completely shatter a citizen’s group and his tactics during the Red Scare draining membership to near-critical levels, the Wobblies persisted through small local chapters, and began gradually clawing their way back to life on the back of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 60s. The 70s saw a return to active campaigning, and these last forty years have found the IWW slowly rebuilding from less than a thousand nationwide to nearly ten thousand today, with a particularly dramatic spike precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re still out there, organizing industries other unions won’t touch, promoting general strikes and the spirit of a union that cares for the worker rather than the pocketbooks of those who deal directly with management, still advocating the One Big Union and the dream of a world where the wage system is abolished and all are provided for according to the value of what they make.
Still, when playwright and first-time filmmaker Stewart Bird was inspired to transform his play about the Wobblies into a documentary in collaboration with Deborah Shaffer, they stood at a crucial point in history, one where the Wobblies may well have been dead. Fifty years on from the union’s last moments of influence and over seventy on from its founding, the vast majority of those who led the original movement were already dead, and a great many members had checked out long since. Working quickly, they assembled a group of fourteen former members across industries from loggers to miners to to textiles to silk weaving to migratory farmhands, sat them down for interviews alongside ACLU founder Roger Baldwin on linking narration, and assembled an enormous body of visual aides from posters to photography to newsreel stock, even throwing in some anti-Wobbly animations for good measure. In short order, the duo had ninety minutes of workable material, peppered with renditions of Little Red Songbook standards, and released it into the world in 1979 as The Wobblies.
It is, I think, the kind of film which speaks best on its own terms rather than with a hefty dose of recap and analysis, mainly because to impart its contents would find me effectively telling the same stories over and over without the appeal of their being told by people who actually lived and witnessed them, and without nearly so many historical artifacts paraded across the screen. I could easily tell you it’s a valuable firsthand resource for hearing about some vital moments in Wobbly history from those who saw it all firsthand, a good means of lighting a fire in your belly for the undying cause of organized labor, and call it a day. I could also let the goblins that swarm my brain at all hours finally have their way and consume me with utensils fashioned from the fear of not waffling on long enough, so despite my belief the best thing one can say about the film is “it speaks plainly and truly enough to make easily digestible material, and ought be watched on its own terms without excess commentary,” I will now provide nothing except excess commentary, drawn from watching through the picture again in a scramble to find something to say.
COVID recovery blows.
- I am normally somewhat annoyed by documentaries that only show the interviewees’ names at the very start and then never identify them again, but it works here to emphasize the important thing isn’t any one person’s personality or appearance, it’s the stories they have to tell and the unity amongst their number. S’an impression helped along by the backing music of a choir singing “There Is Power in a Union” during roll call. I will, however, do my best to credit the speakers by name when referencing their segments.
- I deeply appreciate lumberjack Tom Scribner’s contributions to the film, as he regularly provides the realist’s viewpoint on the IWW, admitting they were maybe a little pie in the sky on their own goals (ironic, given the phrase “pie in the sky” originates from a Joe Hill song written to mock preachers who promise heaven for a lifetime of hell) without once acting as if the goals were not worth pursuing or his time with the union anything less than noble and proper. Plus he plays the singing saw as a transition into wintertime lumberjack footage at one point, so I gotta love him.
- Longshoreman James Fair is the first of many members to tell a story to the effect of outlining the horrible situation he faced at baseline before the IWW’s arrival (in his case being regularly forced out of a job by white laborers the bosses would prefer), but he has a wonderfully smooth way with words that clearly outlines the circumstance and makes him a great first-at-bat for the trend.
- The section covering the 1912 Lawrence textile strike (primarily hosted by Angelo Rocco standing outside one of the old mills) does a good job illustrating how much of the IWW’s bad reputation amongst the press was the result of tactics forced by abhorrent treatment leveraged to show the public just how wretched things were. Children sent away in a public forum to live with sympathetic families because their families could not fight for fair treatment and feed their youth at the same time, women marching at the front of the picket line before armed militias because they would otherwise be forced out of the picket line, hard rhetoric about the violence of withdrawn labor adopted because nobody would stop calling them violent. Makes for a compelling picture of just why the business owners folded so readily in face of such determined opposition; would be nice if the documentary also afforded some time to how the strike’s gains were quickly overturned and the IWW chapter in Lawrence collapsed in a year.
- Mark you, the coverage of numerous failed strikes and the tragedy of the Bisbee deportation with relatively small but pointed mentions of how the Wobblies never kept their attention in one place long does underscore the primary point of the feature. We are here to celebrate a legacy and argue it must continue on long past its supposed dying, but those who blazed the trails were not perfect in their day, and even those who were true blue believes for the time they were involved can admit as much.
- Irma Lombardi of the Paterson silk strike is one of my favorite recurring commentators in the film. Every time she shows up, she’s got a sharp-tongued response to some piece of bullshit anti-union propaganda from a lifetime ago with the same level of disgust at the lies as she must have harbored back in her day. My personal favorite is when she responds to calling Wobblies “agitators” by saying, “They weren’t agitating anyone, they were telling the truth!”, although her memory of rejecting a date offer from a cop who’d previously arrested her is a close second.
- No real substance to this note: I just find the combination of period illustrations of the homeless and starving beneath Haywire Mac’s brief rendition of “The Preacher and the Slave” plain lovely, very touching. Same praise for his go-around on “Hallelujah! I’m a Bum!” and T-Bone Slim’s late-movie performance of “They Go Wild Over Me” to compliment footage of mass arrests. I assumed these performances were by Utah Phillips before checking the credits, and now I’m not sure where he is in the picture. Maybe someone in the comments knows?
- The storytelling tagteam between Nels Peterson and I believe Nicholas Steelink in relaying the Everett, Washington massacre proves a strong means of demonstrating the solidarity shown by the workers aboard the besieged boat, and moreover proves the two directors had finely-honed editing skills so early in their careers to make it play so fluently between the two speakers.
- The double-whammy segment outlining the abuses faced by the loggers in the north and the conscripted labor of migratory workers in the south west makes the lead-in to the section about sabotage as a tactic all the more impactful as we move in on images of Sab-Cat art beneath a rousing rendition of “Ta-Ra-Boom-De-Ay” with notes by Joe Murphy and Jack Miller on the term’s origin in French wooden shoes and meaning as the conscious withdrawl of efficiency respectively. For all these virtues, I’m primarily glad for this section because it closes on a segment from an early Disney Alice Comedy portraying the IWW as Russian fifth columnists, which both ensures proof Walt was an anti-worker bastard at the earliest stages of his career is preserved in the registry, and ensures proof Walt sucked absolute ass at portraying striking workers as anything other than admirable when trying to demonize them is out there as a highlight on its own.
- A broad sentiment for the entire movie, but inspired specifically here by the segment discussing riding boxcars and watching men shoved off to “grease” the rails: this film is doing a lot to reinforce my belief there ought to be someone going around to random folk and sitting them down for an hour or two to talk about their life, for there must be a million such fascinating tales of the sorts you never conventionally hear about just waiting for a camera and microphone to put them on record.
- Much as it’s easy to look back and realize the attempted general strike in protest of American entry into WWI was perhaps a massive mistake that broke the IWW (kinda funny how their acronyms are opposites of one another, innit), the way the talking heads lay out the sheer level of organization of lumberjacks for example, the buffoonish of the boss’ attempts to replace workers with unskilled soldiers (“They’d get lost if they walked around a big stump”), and the effectiveness of alternative striking techniques when striking on the job they won them 8 hour day, you can almost see where the organization got the idea it MIGHT take when applied to a wider cause.
- The media and government smear tactics against organized labor haven’t changed a goddamned whit since 1917, have they. Just different names for the communist/socialist sympathizers, and less overt employment of rough men to burn down headquarters.
- I know Rip Torn provided some voicework for the passages when they quote historical figures who were long dead before production, and I WANT to say he’s the one speaking as the prosecuting attorney A. Michael Patterson whose indictment of the Wobblies as communist subversives comes at movie’s end as a representation of the final blows against IWW cohesion. Great thing to have all speakers come in after his speech to either deliver a final line of defiance or give one last lingering look into the camera. Keeps the legacy alive, God rest their souls.
Watch The Wobblies on your own time. Savor these long-gone champions for the cause, and the art they produced to spread their message. Spread word of the film and look into their history. Organize if you can, and organize proper, in the interest of the workers instead of a compromised union ultimately subservient to corporate masters. Don’t talk to cops, don’t associate with scabs, don’t take any shit when they shovel more onto your platter. Accept any and all who toil for a living as your siblings in the struggle to be respected and own that which you produce. Be the ready, educated, unified workforce envisioned all those years ago, and maybe those pie in the sky visions of a world without the wage system can be a little closer, a little less implausibly sweet. And please, forgive me for not being mentally together enough to give you the usual assortment of paragraphed thoughts this week. Normative programming will resume, I promise.
Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!
Rough week, I admit, personally and professionally, and I’m sure it blares through every inch of the article. Still, we made it, and it’s therefore time for you to leave your thoughts in the comments — on the IWW, its accomplishments, its representation in the film, its continuing influence, however you like. Hash it out, and I’ll see you in two weeks when we convene for our next pic. After nine installments in the 70s, we’re moving into the 80s with a film whose franchise I’d hoped to avoid for a good long while. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is here all the same, though, and you can find it by looking up Harmy’s Despecialized Edition however you can. If you wanna do it legal-like, fine, but I’m not gonna make explicit mention of those channels until such time as Disney reverses George Lucas’ idiocy and makes the proper theatrical cuts available for rental or purchase again. See you then.
Registering the Registry is sponsored by Adept7777 and Dan Stalcup on Patreon.