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.  

Oscar winners’ latest doc focuses on office revolt


By Richard Ades

Most Americans don’t know that “9 to 5” was a labor movement years before it was the name of a hit movie starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. In their first documentary since the Oscar-winning American Factory, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar try to remedy that situation.

9to5: The Story of a Movement talks to the movement’s co-founders, Karen Nusbaum and Ellen Cassedy, along with dozens of others who joined forces to fight for the rights of America’s secretaries.

The flick’s fast-paced beginning uses an amusingly dated promotional film to illustrate the conditions the women worked under. Interviews with former office workers further clarify their predicament: Since there were no formal job descriptions, they were expected to make coffee, run personal errands and generally do whatever their bosses ordered them to do—all the while putting up with sexist comments and frequent sexual harassment.

It was in the early ’70s that Nusbaum and Cassedy took the skills they’d learned from antiwar and civil rights protests and began addressing the problems faced by secretaries. Working out of an office at Harvard, they and others published and distributed a newsletter on the topic. This generated so much interest that they soon became involved in nationwide organizing efforts.

These eventually came to the attention of Fonda, who had time to tackle a new issue after the end of the Vietnam War. As the doc shows, she set up focus groups to gauge just how angry secretaries were at their bosses. The results helped to shape the 1980 revenge comedy 9 to 5.

The documentary makes it clear that the “9 to 5” movement found early success by helping office workers across the country publicize and combat the frustrations they faced in their dead-end jobs. However, things were not so easy when its leaders tried to take the next step by forming a union.

Coincidentally, Reichert and Bognar’s film also loses steam when it begins recounting this difficult period. As they often do, the filmmakers concentrate mainly on activists in their home state of Ohio—specifically, Cleveland and Cincinnati—but they do it in a way that forces viewers to fill in multiple blanks.

What is the “west campus” Cleveland organizers are talking about? Was the Cincinnati walkout strictly a local affair or part of a nationwide strike? A few explanatory comments or title cards would make this section more understandable.

During an interview earlier this year for a profile in Columbus Monthly magazine, Reichert told me they were working to finish the film in time to debut at South by Southwest and the Cleveland International Film Festival (both of which ended up being canceled due to Covid-19). It’s possible the rushed schedule left a few loose ends untied—which is a shame.

Though 9to5 can’t match the “you are there” immediacy of American Factory, the first half or even two-thirds of the running time is both entertaining and informative. Let’s hope the rest of the film can be tweaked before it’s released to the general public, as it offers an important history lesson about a brave battle for the rights of women and workers.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

9to5: The Story of a Movement had a virtual debut at the AFI Docs 2020 film festival. It is not currently available for viewing.