THE WOBBLIES – Review by Martha K Baker

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Why watch an old film about old people in an old protest? Well, if history is going to repeat itself, it might as well be documented and then reviewed. In an excellent version, remastered by the Museum of Modern Art, The Wobblies retrains a light on a landmark labor movement called the Industrial Workers of the World, or the IWW.

The Wobblies, according to a blurb, “investigates a nation torn by naked corporate greed and the red-hot rift between the industrial masters and the rabble-rousing workers in the field and factory.” The film was originally made by Steward Bird and Deborah Shaffer in 1979; few films re-released after 40 years have as much relevance as The Wobblies.

The Wobblies were a radical group formed in 1905 by theoretical Marxists, who believed that factories should be owned by workers. According to legend, the organization’s funny nickname came from an Asian’s mispronunciation of the Ws in IWW, but the group was deadly serious. Its motto: Work. Wages. Respect.

The IWW believed in workers and in One Big Union, from rural to urban. Distinctly, the IWW was a general union, not a craft union, embracing, among others, textile and agricultural workers, loggers, and miners — from coast to coast. The IWW accepted unskilled workers, championing, especially, Blacks and women, who worked for pittance wages, in dangerous conditions, for long horrid hours. They fought for the 8-hour day.

Its history and manifest went back to the Chicago of 1905, two years after the founding of the Ford Motor Company with its assembly line that defined workers as mere cogs in a corporate machine. IWW leaders were Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

The documentary, an oral history, depends on interviews with original members of the union, or with their spouses, who were at the strikes and demonstrations. They speak and sing from memory. One says, “You either had to stop living or become a rebel.” “We were rebellious slaves,” says another, “and there’s nothing more dangerous than a rebellious slave.” They sing “Hold the Fort” and “Solidarity.” This documentary carols with protest songs, where “in the good, old picket line” replaces “in the good, old summertime.”

The Wobblies vigorously rehearses the fight for workers’ rights. The fight continues, and here is its history.

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Martha K. Baker (Archived Contributor)

I first taught film at Lakeland College in Wisconsin in 1969 and became a professional film reviewer in 1976 in St. Louis, Mo. Through the years, I have reviewed films for the St. Louis Business Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Episcopal Life, and KWMU (NPR), among other outlets. I've reviewed at KDHX radio, my current outlet, for nearly 20 years.