“The Wobblies is a history of the IWW, researched lovingly and corroborated by the reminiscences of some of the union’s former members, who are now in their 80’s and 90’s. When the facts are presented as fully as they have been here, the feelings that accompanied them aren’t difficult to imagine.”
~ Janet Maslin, The New York Times (1979)
On December 14th, the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced the 2021 selection of 25 influential motion pictures to be inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The Registry champions American films and this year the seminal documentary, The Wobblies (1979), which was awarded a NYWIFT Women’s Film Preservation Fund grant in 2003, has been honored with inclusion to the list. The Wobblies (1979) by Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird is in outstanding company with others named to the Registry such as Sylvia Morales’ Chicana, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman and Who Killed Vincent Chin? by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña.
The Wobblies is an iconic film of the labor movement and an early innovative narrative that incorporates oral histories, archival media, including animation, and other forms of propaganda. “Solidarity! All for One and One for All!” With that slogan, the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies, took to organizing unskilled workers into One Big Union, changing the course of history. Along the way to winning an eight-hour workday and fair wages in the early 20th century, the IWW was the first union to be racially and sexually integrated, and was often met with imprisonment, violence, and the privations of long strikes. This award-winning film captures a provocative look at the forgotten American history of this most radical of unions, in the unforgettable and still fiery voices of Wobblie members – lumberjacks, migratory workers, and silk weavers – already in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s when they were recorded in the late 1970’s.
Eerily echoing current times, The Wobblies boldly investigates a nation torn by naked corporate greed and the red-hot rift between the industrial masters and the rabble-rousing workers in the fields and factories. Replete with gorgeous archival footage, the film pays tribute to American workers who took the ideals of equality and free speech seriously enough to put their lives on the line for them.
At a Women’s Film Preservation Fund screening of The Wobblies at UnionDocs, Center for Documentary Arts a few years ago, audiences were stunned to be reminded of how relevant the film still is today – in its depiction of the struggles over working conditions, racism, migrant workers, forced deportations of immigrants, and the Chicago trial of 101 IWW in 1921 that presaged the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial of 1970. The IWW was the first union to actively recruit Black members, refusing to bow to segregationist laws, and promoting the active participation of women in leadership and in the rank and file. They led ground-breaking struggles for the right to free speech across the country. Their organizing and philosophy laid the groundwork and provided many of the organizers for what would become the CIO in 1935.
Filmically, The Wobblies is a joyous chronicle of interviews with former members of the Industrial Workers of the World, combined with rare newsreel footage, cartoons, posters, artwork and songs from the period to lovingly evoke the passion, energy and commitment of the Wobblies. While those elements are ubiquitous in today’s documentaries, 40 years ago they were innovative, as was the use of actors reading the words of deceased IWW leaders in voice-over. The Wobblies were unique in using the voices of rank and file women and men; voices that are preserved today only in the film. The Wobblies were among the first in what became a flood of creative historical documentaries released in the 1980’s.
Premiering at the New York Film Festival in 1979, The Wobblies enjoyed worldwide attention through festivals, theatrical runs and semi-theatrical screenings – Rotterdam Film Festival; Berlin Film Festival; American Film Festival (Red Ribbon); Valladolid Film Festival; Figuera da Foz Film Festival; Filmex, and Denver Film Festival. Its theatrical run included New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Northampton, Norwalk, Lawrence, Lincoln, New Haven, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. Labor Union semi-theatrical sponsored screenings were hosted by ACTWU (Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, ACLU, TWU (Transport Workers Union), UAW International, UAW Local 659, 1199 (National Healthcare Workers Union).
Directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer, The Wobblies is a rare and challenging invitation to rethink both past and present though the eyes of an organization largely obliterated from memory, but which still speaks to us today.
Following its film preservation by the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, The Wobblies enjoyed its preservation premiere at Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, and went on to screen at UnionDocs, Center for Documentary Art in New York, and other venues. Most recently, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has just completed a gorgeous 4K restoration of the original film. This restoration will be released theatrically nationwide on by Kino Lorber in 2022.