Union membership in the U.S. peaked in the 1950s, when over 30% of employed workers belonged to unions. That percentage declined steadily in subsequent decades, and today just over 10% of American workers belong to unions. Maybe that’s just the way of the world, given all the touting of the “gig economy” we’ve been treated to (mainly by people who are not dependent on it to earn their living). Or maybe not: a majority of Americans see the decline in union membership as a bad thing, and there have been some highly-publicized breakthroughs in union organizing lately—at Starbucks cafes and Amazon warehouses, among other places.
Given that context, it’s the perfect time to revisit a classic documentary about the IWW—the International Workers of the World, nicknamed the “Wobblies”—first released in 1979 and now re-released in a new 4K restoration. That film is The Wobblies, directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer. This film takes a lively approach to its subject, no small feat considering that it consists primarily of interviews and archival materials, with some animations and folk art thrown in, and the whole mix enlivened by lots of music (including perhaps the jangliest piano ever to be featured on a documentary soundtrack). Overall, it’s pretty rough and ready, but fast-moving and never dull, and offers a welcome challenge to the slick approach taken in so many documentary series now proliferating on Netflix and the like.
Bird and Shaffer’s approach is perfectly appropriate to their material, and can be seen as a reflection of the lives of the people whose voices are heard within it. Of course, it may also be reflective of a small production budget, but that’s fine also. The point is that the directors got the job done, creating a watchable film that amplifies the voices of their interview subjects while offering a potted history lesson on one aspect of the American labor movement.
The IWW, founded in Chicago in 1905, differed from craft unions like the AFL in that they organized unions in many industries, did not restrict membership to skilled workers, and organized workers of different races into a single union. The IWW’s general approach was also more radical than that of the AFL, and they made no secret of what they were about: the preamble to the IWW Constitution begins with these words: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life.”
A variety of workers are interviewed in The Wobblies—male and female, black and white, skilled and unskilled, urban and rural, a mix of nationalities. They’re mostly elderly, and some recall events from the early years of the 20th century. Given the stories they tell, you may agree that the IWW’s militant tone was justified. For instance, James Fair, an African-American dockworker, recalled that the work he did was backbreaking and dangerous. When the workers exercised their power through a strike, the police provided protection to the strikebreakers, while “a striker would have as much chance before the strikebreakers as a rabbit would have before a gun.” | Sarah Boslaugh
The Wobblies opens theatrically on April 29 at Metrograph in NYC, followed by nationwide screenings on May 1 (International Workers Day), and will become available on VOD May 31 on multiple outlets, including Apple TV, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube, and Kino Now.