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The Wobblies’ Return

A lovingly restored 1979 film excavates the lost history of American radicalism.

· 9 min read
The Wobblies’ Return
Joseph J. Ettor, who had been arrested in 1912, giving a speech to barbers on strike. Wikimedia Commons

“One Big Union” was the grand vision—an omnibus labor front to unite and galvanize wage workers, skilled and unskilled, male and female, even black and white, who would lock arms across occupational specialties and stand together against the capitalist bosses and their thugs. In 1905, the dream was realized as the International Workers of the World, known by the red-flag initials “IWW,” and more familiarly, or contemptuously, as the Wobblies.

According to legend, the moniker derived from the broken English of a striking Chinese worker in Vancouver who told reporters that he was staunch member of the “I Wobble Wobble.” “The Chinaman couldn’t pronounce double-ya,” explains a veteran Wobbly in The Wobblies, an unabashedly hagiographic documentary directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer. Originally released in 1979, the film has now been given the 4K restoration treatment from the Museum of Modern Art and a limited theatrical push by Kino Lorber. On May 30th, it will be available for VOD streaming. Like the union it commemorates, the film is worth a second look through 2022 eyes.

Bird and Shaffer’s film premiered on October 11th, 1979, at the New York Film Festival (the filmmakers were still tinkering with the sound mix until the last minute and only just made the press screening deadline), before doing the rounds on the arthouse and then-vibrant university repertory circuits. It was one of a series of like-minded documentaries produced by New Left filmmakers who came of political age in the 1960s, dedicated to excavating the lost history of American radicalism. These films dug up under-seen archival footage and showcased grizzled veterans from groups far to the left of the American political spectrum—lifelong troublemakers as defiantly unbowed in old age as they were in their salad days of bare-knuckled militantism (a white-haired woman in The Wobblies wears a “Senior Power” button.)

This cycle included David Helpern and Arnie Reisman’s Hollywood on Trial (1976); James B. Brown’s The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time (1981); Noel Buckner, Sam Sills, and Mary Dore’s The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War (1984); and James Klein and Julia Reichert’s Seeing Red (1983). All preserve invaluable eyewitness testimony and swoon before the romance of American radicalism. “There is no way you can make a film about the Wobblies that isn’t romantic,” director Deborah Shaffer told the film magazine Cineaste in 1980.

Bird and Shaffer cornered their eyewitnesses not a minute too soon: the glory days of the Wobblies were during the first two decades of the 20th century, so do the math. In interview sessions conducted in the late 1970s, the ancient class warriors knew they were delivering a kind of last testament to the lost cause, and the filmmakers understood that they were racing against time.

The IWW was founded in Chicago in 1905 by the legendary firebrand William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, the perennial socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, and the beloved matriarch of radicalism Mother Jones. “Every working man or woman who earns his livelihood by brain or muscle” must “organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system,” read the preamble to the organization’s founding document. “They were a little vague,” admits one interviewee, “on where they went from there.” From the start, the “Industrial” billing was something of a misnomer: the IWW welcomed migratory workers, lumberjacks, and any other weather-beaten laborer with calloused hands. Unlike the exclusionary crafts and guilds, every working “stiff” (a tag worn as a badge of honor) was entitled to membership. University students and intellectuals—those who came to radical politics by way of the head not the stomach, as Lenin put it—tended to join up elsewhere.

Big Bill Haywood was the face and voice of the group—the personification of the broad-shouldered, barrel-chested workingman, he resembled a Wobbly poster come to life. Born in 1869 in Salt Lake City, Utah, he was working in the copper mines by the age of nine and preaching socialism to his fellow miners soon afterward. In 1906, Haywood was arrested for the murder of former Governor Frank Steunenberg of Idaho, who, newspapers reported at the time, had been “blown to fragments when he opened the gate leading to his home.” While in jail awaiting trial, Haywood stood as the Socialist Labor Party candidate for governor of Colorado. He was acquitted unchastened.

Bird and Shaffer recruited the veteran civil rights activist Roger Baldwin (1884–1981), a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920, to serve as on-camera raconteur and voiceover narrator. He recalls that for 10 or 15 years “IWW” was a “fear phrase” in the United States used to smear its members and terrify the public. In 1914, Billboard banned even “the cabalistic initials” from being typeset in its pages. Little matter to the Wobblies, who had other ways of imprinting their logo. One veteran recalls with relish that he and his comrades would carve an “I” onto the forehead and a “W” onto each check of company goons and then pour potassium into the wounds.

Undeterred, the film lovingly chronicles the storied battles of Wobbly legend: the strikes in the woolen mills of Lawrence, MA (1912); the silk mills of Paterson, NJ (1913); the saw mills and logging camps around Everett, WA (1916), and the copper mines of Bisbee, AZ (1917). The Wobblies’ war of attrition tallied up more losses than wins, but they were always on the field, ready to do battle with police, vigilantes, and union thugs, who could be hard to tell apart. There were “a lot of cracked heads,” one woman recalls, and worse—protesters were sometimes shot dead and activists got lynched.

Baldwin describes the fight for better conditions and shorter hours in the textile mills of Lawrence as the IWW’s “largest and most successful strike.” The campaign is vividly evoked on the original site by organizer Angelo Rocco. “Ital[ians], Polish people, Lithuanians, Syrians, Portuguese, Belgian people, and Franco Americans—there were 24 nationalities,” united in the common cause, recalls Rocco proudly, gesturing at the long-shuttered mills behind him. Haywood himself came in to lend support, snarling “Let them weave cloth with bayonets!”

At the silk mills in Paterson, innocent-looking young girls took jobs to infiltrate the workforce and spin the factory girls into committed socialists. For these women, the most admired revolutionary figure was not Big Bill Haywood but the charismatic feminist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the IWW agitator known as “the Joan of Arc of the Industrial Revolution.” “The IWW has been accused of pushing the women in the front,” said Flynn. “The truth is the IWW does not keep them in the back—and they go to the front.” A woman who saw Flynn speak to the silk workers recalls dreamily, “She was beautiful.”

In the Pacific Northwest, the Wobbly message “spread even more conspicuously than it had in the east,” says Baldwin. No wonder: lumberjacks toiled long hours at dangerous work and losing an appendage was considered part of the job (one veteran shows off a hand minus a finger). On November 5th, 1916, when a boatload of Wobblies from Seattle sailed into Everett for a public rally in support of the loggers, they were met at the dock by the local sheriff and a posse of hastily sworn-in deputies. Shots rang out, and the official body count was five dead Wobblies and two dead deputies. It was the “most brutally suppressed of all” Wobbly strikes, says Baldwin.

Though Hayward penned countless pamphlets and tracts, the Wobblies left behind almost no enduring literature. Their preferred means of spreading the word were speeches, posters, and, above all, songs. Appropriately, the soundtrack is a veritable jukebox of rousing Wobbly folk songs, chants, and singalongs. “Every migrant Wobbly had one of the famous Little Red Song books stuck somewhere in his overalls,” remembered the communist writer, Mike Gold. Sixty years on, old-timers could still remember the lyrics and did not require much prompting to belt out a chorus. Oddly, the folk singer Joe Hill, perhaps the most famous Wobbly of all, is mentioned only in passing. He was executed for a double murder in 1915, and meta-lamented and immortalized in the folk song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” which survives in baby boomer memory because Joan Baez performed it at Woodstock in 1969. Hill was almost certainly guilty, a fact which messes up the mythos.

Beneath the soundtrack, posters, leaflets, and 2x4 stickers flip by in montage. This was low-tech agitprop that was easy to hand out on the street and post on telegraph poles. However, the Wobblies were outgunned by the slicker graphics from better funded outfits with access to the new means of mass communications. In the Disney cartoon Alice’s Egg Plant (1925), a rabble-rousing Bolshevik hen (dubbed “Little Red Henski” and carrying a satchel labeled “Moscow Russia, I.W.W.”) stirs up trouble by egging on the chicken coop to revolt against factory-owner Alice. “Smaller eggs!” demand the placards. “Shorter hours!”

Another short cartoon, produced around 1919 by Henry Ford, depicted a mangy rodent identified by a “Bolsheviki IWW” label breaking into a grain storehouse. The vermin is killed by a vigilant Uncle Sam lookalike. “Bolshevists are the rats of civilization,” reads a dialogue balloon.

The Wobblies avoided dialectical disputation, but the group held orthodox Marxist views about religion, which was held to be the opiate of the American people. The slogans were withering (“Trust in the Lord and Sleep in the Street” and “Jesus Saves the Willing Slaves.”) and the song lyrics bitter (most famously, folk singer Joe Hill’s anti-hymn, “Pie in the Sky” assured churchgoers: “Work and pray, live on hay/You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”). No matter how tuneful, though, the message won few converts. A nation founded by religious zealots and forever prone to evangelical Great Awakenings was not the best place for an atheistic doctrine to take root. “We want to see more Irish in the good old picket line,” croon the Wobbly strikers—an unlikely prospect given the staunch Catholicism of most Irish workers.

The decline of the IWW began with the Great War. Like the Bolsheviks, the Wobblies looked upon the conflagration in Europe as a money-making scheme by rapacious capitalists who were exploiting the workers as cannon fodder. Yet the workers of the world—German, English, French, and American—found nationalism a stronger impulse than socialism, and rushed to fill the ranks in the trenches. True to first principles, the Wobblies refused to enlist. Why make common cause with men who “wave the flag with one hand and rob you with the other”?

The antiwar resistance of the Wobblies was not passive; they engaged in work stoppages and other forms of soft sabotage (neatly defined by an old-timer as “the conscious withdrawal of efficiency”) in an effort to grind the machinery of war to a halt. (The root word for sabotage comes from the French, sabot, wooden shoe, hence the pictures of wooden shoes that appear in so many of the antiwar posters urging workers to “put your wooden shoes on, pards.”)

Predictably, the full coercive power of the state came down like a sledgehammer. In 1917, Big Bill Haywood and scores of other Wobblies were arrested on charges of sedition and convicted (the perp walk is unspooled in vintage Gaumont Graphic newsreel footage). In 1921, while out on bail awaiting appeal, Haywood fled to the Soviet Union, where he died in 1928. Concurrently, the Palmer Raids of 1919–20, in which foreign-born radicals were deported and native-born radicals were jailed, further depleted the Wobbly ranks.

In the aftermath of the Great War, the Wobblies found themselves beset on all sides. Making peace with American capitalism, conservative labor unions focused on bread-and-butter reforms not revolutionary transformation. Samuel Gompers, head of the mainstream American Federation of Labor, called the Wobblies “a radical fungus on the labor movement.” IWW, sneered detractors, stood for “I Won’t Work” or “I Want Whiskey.”

Nominal allies from further left were no better. Riding the momentum from the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist Party siphoned off the activist energy from the IWW and attacked its rival for the dread crime of “syndicalism,” the transfer of power to union workers rather than party apparatchiks. “The IWW, once a militant organization, is today like a dying snake, dying but full of venom,” hissed the Daily Worker in 1932. By then, the Wobblies were yesterday’s news, hardly worth the effort required to swat them away. They were supplanted by the Communist Party, whose up-down discipline and ruthless cynicism dominated far-Left politics in America until the postwar era.

The Wobblies still exist today—they even have a website—but the group belongs to the past, frozen in the amber of the early decades of the 20th century. The film, on the other hand, is enjoying a longer shelf-life. In 2021, it was placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and is now readily available in physical or digital media. The “One Big Union” that sent out its message in speech, posters, and song is likely to be best remembered in the medium of the motion picture.

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