The Wobblies (1979)

[28 November 2006]

By Whitney Strub

The Rats of Civilization

To the extent that labor history exists at all in the American public memory, its narrative would seem to be one of progressive triumphalism with a sudden bleak coda: workers organized over the course of decades, both in the respectably moderate American Federation of Labor and the unwieldy, radical Congress of Industrial Organizations.  Eventually the freewheeling members of the latter organization saw the light at the middle of the road, and the AFL-CIO was born, thus solving the problems of the working man—until (as the recent midterm elections in states like Arizona revealed a frighteningly large proportion of the voting population to misguidedly believe), illegal immigrants began seeping across the border to destabilize American wages.

Like other mythologized aspects of American history, this story omits much, from the deployment of state-sponsored police violence against strikers at the behest of corporate interests in such episodes as the 1894 Pullman strike to the recent (and ongoing) quarter-century of anti-labor federal policy (visit the Ronald Reagan Museum in southern California’s conservative Simi Valley—where the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted—and you’ll see Reagan’s shocking firing of striking air traffic controllers framed as a glorious victory of the administration). The result is a whitewashed version of history that willfully obscures the vigorous and inspiring contestations of the status quo that truly mark American history; how many citizens today are aware that the Socialist Party won six percent—over 900,000 votes—of the Presidential election in 1912?

One casualty of this propagandized public memory is the Industrial Workers of the World, popularly known as the Wobblies. Founded in 1905 and more radical by far than the AFL (which catered to skilled workers rather than the proletariat at large, and which condoned racial segregation) or the later CIO (which more aggressively and militantly unionized all workers), the IWW sought not just to organize workers regardless of race, creed, or gender, but it also strived to “take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.” After the Russian revolution of 1917, this would of course be labeled as communism; for the decade-plus of its viable existence, the IWW simply framed it as justice for the working class.

Released in 1979 as an overt attempt to stave off the national leftist malaise that followed the failure of the New Left and its ‘60s countercultural revolution, The Wobblies seeks to restore the IWW to its rightful place of importance in the history of American radicalism, and also to unearth a usable past.  Look, it cries out to the Me Decade, our generation wasn’t the first to struggle, and it wasn’t the first to fail, but the fight for justice can move forward by learning from the past. In trying to condense the wonderfully rich story of the Wobblies into 90 minutes, the film necessarily reduces the complexity of the organization’s struggles and leaves much out; but as an effort to revive an excluded chapter of history and inspire viewers to thought and action, The Wobblies is a remarkable success.

In the hands of directors Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer, the film is also a stunning work of social history. The two scoured historical archives, local phone directories, and whatever other sources were available to track down surviving Wobblies (as well as ACLU founder Roger Baldwin), finally assembling a group that emphasized the diversity of the union. Black, white, male, female: these elderly figures, filmed in the mid-‘70s, recount the events of a half-century earlier with vivid, passionate detail, rapidly dismantling any ageist stereotypes held by the audience. A woman who looks like a stereotypically mild-mannered grandmother sparkles with life as she recalls her feisty youth, using her innocent girlish looks to infiltrate textile mills and organize the workers; a migratory worker remembers, with a bitterness undiminished by time, the police violence against organizers in 1916 Everett, Washington, when he was forced by a hail of bullets to hold back and watch as a fellow Wobbly, having jumped off a ship, was shot in the water, sinking from view. The effect is devastating, and there’s more, much more: lumberjacks, longshoremen, silk weavers, each with a gripping story of government adversity and Wobbly resistance, not to mention a proud sense of class consciousness as non-complacent workers. 

Some IWW efforts succeeded, many failed: we hear of an impressive 1912 victory in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and also of the hard-fought defeat the next year in Paterson, New Jersey. Bird and Shaffer go well beyond talking heads, using carefully selected film footage and historical photographs to make a truly cinematic counterhistory. They skillfully bring to life long-deceased characters with true quotes narrated over still pictures, so we hear robber baron Jay Gould sneer, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half”, while AFL head Samuel Gompers rejects the Wobblies as “never more than a radical fungus on the labor movement”. In another wonderful touch, the directors emphasize the exquisite musical heritage of the IWW, filling the soundtrack with both archival and new recordings of Wobbly music, including several songs by the legendary Joe Hill, who wrote “Rebel Girl” and “The Preacher and the Slave” which mocks the empty promises of apolitical religious figures who have abandoned the social gospel: “you get pie in the sky when you die.” When notorious anarchist Emma Goldman famously rejected any revolution she couldn’t dance to, the Wobblies were exactly the answer.

Whatever influence the Wobblies managed to accumulate in the ‘10s—and while limited by violent resistance from government and business interests, it was a large amount, as the group counted tens of thousands of members—was promptly annihilated by the sweeping repression of World War I and its aftermath. While internal factionalism over how to interpret the Russian revolution weakened the IWW, outside forces rendered those debates nearly irrelevant. Newspapers printed fabricated stories accusing the Wobblies of wartime treason, and a Ford-sponsored cartoon included in the film unnervingly anticipates anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda by portraying the IWW as “the rats of civilization”. Over one hundred Wobbly leaders were convicted and imprisoned on spurious wartime sedition charges. In another shocking abrogation of civil liberties, 1,200 strikers in Bisbee, Arizona were simply rounded up and shipped off into the desert heat on trains, without food or water.

Bird and Shaffer document all of this with true filmmaking acumen and a humane, sympathetic touch. Of course, it’s impossible to avoid wishing The Wobblies were another 12 hours long—there’s so much more to tell! Though the film’s social-history approach brilliantly recovers undocumented history and crystallizes abstract narratives into heartbreaking and specific episodes, one can only wish for a thorough explication of such Wobbly leaders as “Big Bill” Haywood, Eugene V. Debs, Mary Harris (“Mother”) Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and the aforementioned Joe Hill, canonized in recent years by his fervent follower Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine (and the less politicized Audioslave).

Whatever lacunae The Wobblies has can, of course, be filled by further reading. A bibliography is one of the few things Docurama’s carefully assembled DVD extras lacks (I recommend Patrick Renshaw’s The Wobblies as an introduction, and Melvin Dubofsky’s We Shall Be All for the more academically inclined); with useful filmmaker biographies, a captivating photo gallery, and—best of all—recordings of several Wobbly songs, the extras further flesh out the film. An interview with Brown University professor Paul Buhle makes several concrete points of comparison between the post-WWI Red Scare and the current suppression of civil liberties and nativist fervor underway in post-9/11 America, while a recent interview with the filmmakers outlines the painstaking effort that went into locating source material while constructing the film. It would be nice, though, to see some acknowledgement that the IWW technically continues to exist, albeit in severely weakened form.

It’s inevitable that a global workers-rights movement must eventually coalesce in the face of underregulated international corporate exploitation. The Wobblies reminds us that any such effort is precarious, but also that it’s possible. For recovering this forgotten segment of American history, and for rightly emphasizing that dissent is a crucial component of the American heritage, The Wobblies does a service for us all.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-wobblies-1979/