Documentary - The Wobblies

Ahead of a screening at select cinemas across the US on International Workers Day on Sunday, Tony Cross watched a 4k restoration of the landmark Labour Movement documentary by Stewart Bird & Deborah Shaffer, The Wobblies...

The Wobblies, made by filmmakers Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird, tells the story of the International Workers of the World. The IWW, founded in Chicago in 1905, took to trying to organise unskilled workers of all races and genders throughout the United States of America.

It was originally released in 1979 but this is a 4k restoration of what is something of a landmark documentary on Labour* history. The first thing I will say is that it does look impressive. It looks like it was made yesterday, even the footage from the early 20th century looks better than it must have done in 1979.

Shaffer and Bird use archival film footage, history, cartoons – there’s a particularly hilarious anti-IWW cartoon made by Ford that is worth a watch to show the degree of hostility that the IWW faced, particularly after the Russian Revolution – art, music and interviews with former workers and Wobblies themselves. It’s narrated by Roger Baldwin, who was one of the founders of the ACLU, but also features actors reading words from various figures of the time, including Attorney General A Mitchell Palmer, who seems like an utterly despicable git. **

That mix makes this an easy to watch film. It helps that the people Shaffer and Bird interviewed are such good characters and that their stories are so interesting. They tell of strikes – that succeeded and failed, of attempting to recruit, of the hostility the AFL (The American Federation of Labour) and their arrests.

The AFL were a union for skilled workers, and they were racially segregated. The IWW went after unskilled workers and were unsegregated. The history of the left is filled with conflicts like this. There is an argument that the Trade Union movement took the fangs out of the working class by making it respectable. But that isn’t an argument I can make in a short review like this.

The music is great too. We need more protest songs. I know they’re out there, but Rebel Girl (by Joe Hill) is an absolute cast iron classic. It’s sung by the interviewers themselves as well as folk musicians which makes it feel alive. [Listen to Joe Glazer's version here - Ed]

The IWW was hated by business and government. The story of the early 20th century US trade union movement is the story of oppression and violence. I suppose the story of trade unionism and protest is still that story, but workers were attacked with clubs and guns. They were arrested, imprisoned, or fled the country.

The IWW’s fate was sealed by World War One and the Russian Revolution. The attempts to strike during the war were ruthlessly ended. The IWW were accused of being agents of the Kaiser and once the Bolsheviks were in charge the IWW could be charged with being a front them. It was the beginning of US governments willingly overthrowing freedom of speech when they didn’t like the speech and the Red Scare starts here, although it takes a while to flare into its full glory. The treatment of the IWW post 1917 is ugly indeed.

I really enjoyed this. It’s a pretty good example of how to make a documentary on a subject that could be dry and uninteresting, but the mixture of personal stories, music and politics means there’s always something to keep you interested. It’s 89 minutes long and it flies by. Someone should release a soundtrack album.

Worth a watch.

*I’m going to stick to the UK spellings because it is simpler.

**I know. Highly unprofessional.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

Images - courtesy of IWW
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