The Wobblies: There Is Power in a Union, by David Bax
The Wobblies, Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer’s 1979 documentary about the heyday of the Industrial Workers of the World union (recently restored in 4K and set to screen all over the country for International Workers Day), makes no attempt to be an evenhanded historical overview. That’s a compliment. As a work of full throated and energetic pro-labor advocacy that treats its interviewees (including ACLU founder Roger Baldwin as the narrator) as rogue heroes, it’s far more fun to watch than a basic description might make it sound.
Any group that would embrace the nickname “Wobblies” (origin uncertain, though one possible explanation is offered in the film) clearly has a sense of humor about itself, even though its members are willing to risk violence and imprisonment to fight for fair pay and humane conditions for workers. The “Little Red Songbook,” a lyrical reference for the many, many songs they sang at protests and picket lines, includes among its somber numbers about solidarity more than a few raucous ditties that lampoon the bosses and the scabs. It’s this sense of prankishness that informs Bird and Shaffer’s approach.
Liberally employing archival footage in way that feels less instructional than amusing, The Wobblies maintains an almost tongue-in-cheek tone. In a way, it could be seen as a precursor to the dominant strain of documentaries being made today, hollowly presentational infotainment and glorified PowerPoint presentations. Let’s not blame this movie for what it may have wrought, though, in the same way we can’t blame Jaws for every summer blockbuster that came to follow.
Any puckishness falls away, though, when The Wobblies approaches the events actually chronicled in a recent documentary–most assuredly not one of the ones I was just mocking–Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 (somewhere in some box I still have a reprinted version of the Little Red Songbook handed out at that movie’s Sundance premiere). When Greene’s movie came out, right at the beginning of the Donald Trump administration, much of the focus was on its depictions of racism and the topic of “deportation.” It’s helpful to be reminded that, even without a lens of current events, the sudden rounding up of hundreds of workers who were then loaded onto a train and deposited without food or water in the middle of the desert is a truly traumatic and shameful event in American history.
One final thing that marks The Wobblies as important and distinguishes it within the history of labor movement cinema is its focus on women. When we think of industrial workers from 100 years ago, we tend to invoke images of soot-caked men. Bird and Shaffer give the final word to women who lived through these events and gave as good as they got.
By the way, it should be noted that the restored The Wobblies was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. This restoration, at least based on the screener file I viewed, is fantastic. It looks like the film just rolled off the printer yesterday.