The Wobblies (1979)

“Jesus Saves Willing Slaves.”

 The documentary film The Wobblies provides an overview of the rise and fall of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), complete with archival footage, loads of interviews, Wobbly art and songs. The film was made in 1979, and it’s refreshing to see these geriatric Wobblies carry their radical beliefs into their 70s and beyond. No fluffy pink Grannies and Granddads here.

The film makes a good effort to portray the appalling, exploitive labor conditions of the times, and the archival footage helps. If you were injured on the job (and since there were no safety rules, work injuries were common), you were on your own. A great many of those interviewed were lumberjacks, and they relate the types of injuries they or their fellow lumberjacks suffered. If they were lucky, they just lost fingers. The lumberjacks lived in the filth and squalor of camps full of lice and were fed the cheapest, rotgut food possible. One interviewee laughs when he describes how a foreman armed with an axe ran him out of the camp after learning that he was a Wobbly. 

Tracing the rise and fall of the Wobblies, one interviewee notes “IWW was a feared phrase in the United States for 10-15 years.” One of the remarkable things about the IWW was that it embraced female members and blacks, and this was at a time when it was the ONLY American union to welcome all who wished to join. They fought for the eight-hour work day, and ultimately believed that the wage system should be abolished.

The government began crackdowns on the IWW during WWI, and the media helped fuel the propaganda machine. In 1917, massive numbers of IWW members were arrested and charged with such things as encouraging desertion, and hindering the draft. Whopping jail sentences locked away prominent members for sentences of up to 20 years. The IWW was almost destroyed in the next few years. With its most active members locked up or on the run, eternal divisions, government repression, and the Red Scare conjoined to almost bury the IWW forever. 

The IWW has a rich history behind it, so the film is loaded with songs, and art (my favorite poster is the Pyramid of Capitalist Society). The film includes details of the Everett Massacre, but details about the murder (or “suicide” as it was officially called) of Wesley Everest are absent. The IWW is still alive and kicking, and given the way that the world is going, we need it now more than ever. Check out: 

Directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

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