The Wobblies

The Wobblies (1978, new DVD 2006) This documentary of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has been a fixture in my labor history classes for years. I was thrilled to find a new DVD to replace my rapidly dissolving VHS copy. The new production also provides a wonderful selection of extra features, including an interview with producers Steward Bird and Deborah Shaffer, proving that The Wobblies serves both as a spirited description of working-class struggles and a terrific discussion of how documentaries are create
Founded in 1905, The IWW, whose supporters were called “the Wobblies,” was a remarkable organization and this documentary captures the struggles, the spirit, the songs and satires of the movement. The production features the most astonishing interviews with elderly workers who participated in various IWW campaigns from the timber fields of the northwest to the Lawrence strike (1912) and the Patterson strike (1913) in which the IWW brought industrial unionism to fragmented and craft-conscious industries. None of them has lost their fervor, their belief in the revolution or their marvelous sense of humor. What other documentary offers a “talking head” who can both describe the debates in the lumber camps over the Russian Revolution and play—to concert level—a musical saw?

Beyond the powerful narratives, this documentary retrieved a terrific selection of old and archival footage, including cartoons and graphics, giving a narrative structure that provides a context for the interviews. The only intermittent narrator is Roger Baldwin, the founder of The American Civil Liberties Union, who at age 95 wrote his own script based on his brief membership in the IWW in 1919.

Bird and Shaffer describe both the making of this particular video and, in a retrospective after almost 30 years, its place in documentary movie history. For any student of documentaries as a specialty, this addendum is almost as fascinating as the main production. Inspired by The Sorrow and the Pity, the 1969 documentary about Vichy France, Bird and Shaffer claim that TheWobblies is the first of the “new wave” of documentaries that brought both new topics and new techniques to the field.

All of the “leaders--and how the Wobblies despised this term—were dead since this documentary was produced 73 years after the IWW was first organized. The producers, of necessity and of choice, had to interview normal IWW workers who became the “talking heads” for the production. Responding to a shift in labor history in the 1970s which emphasized the narratives of “ordinary workers”—in contrast to featuring union officials or institutions--Bird and Shaffer were determined to reach the grass roots. They relate with affection the interviews they conducted and the difficulties tracking down potential interviews. Shaffer describes the difficulties, for example, of interviewing workers in Bisbee, AZ, where 1,100 Wobblies were dragged into the desert in 1917, a moment in the town’s history that the residents wanted to bury.
Bill Barry Community College of Baltimore County


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