Vintage doc tells sad tale of pioneering labor struggle

Poster for The Wobblies

By Richard Ades

“There is power, there is power in a band of working men…” (Lyrics from “There Is Power in a Union” by Joe Hill)

Though unions have had a few recent victories in their efforts to unionize companies such as Amazon and Starbucks, they’ve long since passed their heyday. So maybe it’s the right time to re-release The Wobblies, a 1979 documentary about one of the labor movement’s early champions.

The homespun flick tells the story of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a union that sought to unite and represent unskilled workers in the early 20th century. Such laborers made up an increasingly important segment of the work force in an American economy that was once agrarian but was fast becoming industrialized.

Whether they were installing bolts on an assembly line or sawing down trees in the Pacific Northwest, the doc states, they were prime targets for exploitation from corporations whose only loyalty was to their stockholders. That is, until the IWW (nicknamed “the Wobblies”) began organizing and fighting back.

Directors Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer recount the union’s struggles with the help of vintage film footage and interviews with a host of aging former members. Supplying the musical accompaniment are a variety of folksy protest songs, by Joe Hill and others, that IWW members sang to keep their spirits up when things got tough.

And make no mistake about it. Things did get tough, as corporations fought back against the IWW with propaganda, arrests and even outright violence. But the union also got tough, responding not only with strikes but with sabotage and, occasionally, with violence of its own.

Spoiler alert: This old film about an even older struggle does not have a happy ending. Even so, many will find The Wobblies educational and inspiring, as it shows what a few determined people can accomplish when they refuse to kowtow to threats, public opinion or the status quo. It’s a lesson that bears repeating—often.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Wobblies (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets beginning May 31.  

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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