nobody movie_Movie Review: “The Wobblies” – A moving tale of a largely forgotten American class conflict


By Daniel Lazare

Premiered at the 1979 New York Film Festival, this stunning documentary about one of the most dramatic periods in American working-class history has been restored.

The Wobbles (1979) directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer.

[Screens across the country for International Workers’ Day (May 1). Cities include: New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC,  Seattle, San Francisco, Detroit, Cleveland, Denver, Austin, Park City, Omaha, Portland, and others.]

Are you looking for a way to celebrate May Day now that mass demonstrations seem to be out of fashion? The Wobbles could be a good start. Directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer, the film has undergone a full 4k restoration more than 40 years after its release and opens nationwide in time for International Workers’ Day. Although some might be inclined to dismiss it as an exercise in left-wing nostalgia – I confess I belonged to that group – it is actually a powerful look at one of the most dramatic periods in American working-class history. It features the likes of Roger Baldwin, a leftist arsonist in his day who later founded the American Civil Liberties Union, and a dozen or so lesser-known souls declaiming passionately about events in their youth.

The story they tell is about a powerful upsurge in class conflicts that are now largely forgotten. It takes us back more than a century to when America was the world’s economic miracle, an industrial behemoth that outperformed Britain, France and Germany combined. To operate its mines and mills, it attracted 15 million people annually, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe. But considering the country had no welfare, unemployment insurance, labor laws, or workplace regulations, immigrants who could barely speak English were at the mercy of one of the most rapacious business classes the world had ever seen. A colliery owner summed up the prevailing attitude in 1902 when he declared that “the rights and interests of the working people are protected and cared for – not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God, in his infinite wisdom, is bestowed control of the property interests of this country.”

With God on the side of the bosses, whispering the word “strike” was blasphemous.

Stepping into this breach in 1905 were the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies. The IWW organized entire industries from the bottom up, without regard to race, ethnicity, or gender. “The working class and the employer class have nothing in common,” declared the Wobbly Constitution. “…A struggle must go on between these two classes until all the working people come together, politically as well as industrially, and appropriate and hold what they produce through their labor through an economic organization of the working class.” All working people, that is, not just those who were white, male, native born and possessed of certain high quality skills.

Mass strikes broke out from the textile mills in Massachusetts to the logging camps of the Pacific Northwest. Times were not gentle. The Wobbles shows cops cracking heads and shooting guns. A 90-year-old recounts an amazing incident in Bisbee, Arizona, in July 1917, when the local sheriff, at the behest of the Phelps Dodge Corporation, dispatched a mob of 2,000 vigilantes, loaded more than a thousand striking copper miners onto a freight train, and transported them 200 miles to neighboring New Mexico and then dumped in the middle of the desert. “There were machine guns,” remembers the – unfortunately unknown – woman with an Italian accent that has not diminished with age. “They wanted to shoot if someone jumped off the train.”

“1,270 men,” she adds, “in boxcars—boxcars—like cattle! And then they take her down…to Columbus, New Mexico, with no water, no anything.”

“Conditions kept getting worse,” recalled a veteran of an IWW strike in Paterson, New Jersey, then the center of the US silk industry. “And there was only one thing to do. One had to either just stop living or become a rebel. And that’s where the IWW came in.”

“Rebels, there’s a bunch of rioters in Paterson,” says another woman. “Agitators! I used to get angry. I said, ‘They’re not rushing us, they’re just telling us the truth.’”

When 300 Wobblies took the ferry from Seattle to the city of Everett, 30 miles up the Washington coast, to support a local woodworkers’ strike, hundreds of vigilantes met them at the dock and opened fire. At least five were killed. “I don’t know how many they shot,” says another ex-Wobbly. “Nobody knows. Many went overboard, some jumped, some fell… it was awful.”

That was in 1916. Things looked even worse the next year, when the US entered the war and newspaper headlines swept in that the Wobblies were allied with the Kaiser. The repression was massive. The Russian Revolution, meanwhile, resulted in the IWW being split from within. Finally, Wobbly’s preamble, true to the union’s anarcho-syndicalist roots, had urged workers to avoid “affiliation with any political party”. But the Bolsheviks were a vanguard party in perfect completion. Logging camps echoed with debate. “They had great fights in the bunkhouses,” recalls one veteran. “The Chairman, he got up and opened the meeting and … he said, ‘Gather here, colleagues, we’ve got a goddamn revolution we need to talk about.'” Over the next year, 101 Wobblies were sentenced to up to 20 years each , after being found guilty in a mass trial in Chicago federal court of obstructing conscription, encouraging desertion and inciting intimidation of the workforce. Membership recovered in the early 1920s, but the overall trend was clearly in decline.

The Wobbles is moving and intense so it’s good to have it back after all these years. But the restoration is not without its poignant side. It could easily be said that the film is a reminder that such struggles never end and that we all owe a debt of gratitude to a previous generation of rebels for putting their lives on the line. But decades later, we have an uneasy feeling that, despite these efforts, conditions have deteriorated—that is, become more atomized, commodified, unruly, and discouraged. Today’s conditions are not only more complicated, but society is losing ground. The Wobbles is not a feel-good film, and we have him entirely to thank for that.

Daniel Lazarus is the author of The Frozen Republic and other books on the US Constitution and US Politics. He has written for a variety of publications including Harpers and the London Review of Books. He currently writes regularly for the Weekly workera socialist newspaper in London.

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