THE WOBBLIES, Directed by Stewart Bird, Deborah Shaffer, 1979, DVD Release 2006
A review of the life of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as Wobblies) leader Big Bill Haywood. An appreciation of the role of the Wobblies in early 20th century labor history by American Trotskyist leader (and former Wobblie) James P. Cannon. An urgent call to help old time Wobblie folksinger/storyteller Utah Phillips. A reading of a biography of "Rebel Girl" Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (later, unfortunately, an unrepentant Stalinist hack). And now a DVD review of the film The Wobblies. For a writer who holds no truck with anarchy-syndicalist solutions to the problems of the class struggle this has nevertheless seemingly turned into the Year of the Wobblie.
And, dear friends, that is as it should be. Before the formation of the American Communist Party in the immediate aftermath of World War I the Wobblies were, front and center, the major revolutionary labor organization in this country. We honor those Wobblie-led struggles, the memory of those old comrades and try to learn the lessons from their fights. And that, ultimately, is the beauty of the film under review.
Most docudramas or documentaries are filled with learned `talking heads' telling us what the historical significance of this or that event meant. And that concept has its place in our search for an understanding of our history, good or bad. The filmmakers here, in contrast, have seemingly gone out and found every last old time rank and file or middle level cadre Wobblie that still uttered breathe at the time of the film's creation (1979). Here we get the voice, sometimes loud, sometimes confused, sometimes haltingly, sometimes not very articulately telling the story of the Wobblies down at the base-the place where all class struggle ultimately has to be resolved.
We hear old itinerant lumberjacks; migrant farm workers, hobos and `stiffs' get their say. And frankly it is very nice for change of pace. Damn, I wish we had some of those, old as they were by the time they told their story on film, feisty labor militants around today. These were the American equivalent of the rank and file of the Russian Bolshevik organization. They represent the memory of the working class in better times. Moreover, interspersed in between interviews is excellent film footage of some of the early labor struggles (some that I had never seen before like the Bisbee, Arizona deportations-to the New Mexico border- of the copper mine strikers in 1917). And in the background accompanying the footage many of the old Wobblie labor songs created by Joe Hill and others in order to bolster labor solidarity. Ah, those were the times.
Note: This film gives a good chronology of the development of the IWW from its founding in 1905 to the hard times during World War I and its aftermath. It provides less information about latter times. Moreover, outside the opinions of the various old Wobblies it is hard to get a sense of the disputes in the organization, and there were many particularly about the relationship with the Russian Revolution in 1917, and what caused the failure of the old organization (apart from the obvious destructive role of the government crackdowns). For more on the politics check my entries in this space on James P. Cannon on the IWW and the Life of Big Bill Haywood.