For a brief period in the early 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had governments and business tycoons running scared. It took a vicious Red Scare assault to suppress the organization. While the IWW has never enjoyed the sheer membership numbers it had in the 1910s and ’20s, the “Wobblies,” as its members are commonly known, have been a continued force for labor rights and progressive causes, right up to the present day. In 1979, on the tail end of an earlier resurgence the IWW enjoyed as part of the US counterculture, a documentary looked back on the halcyon days of the “one big union.” Now, the Museum of Modern Art has restored that touchstone labor film, The Wobblies, which last year was added to the US National Film Registry and now is hitting theaters again ahead of a streaming release (naturally, just in time for May Day).
Befitting the spirit of its subject matter, the film does not defer to any single authoritative voice, instead presented as an oral history related to the viewer by a group of surviving Wobblies. (By the time of the film’s release, all were quite old, and recording their stories was a vital act of historical preservation before they could be lost forever.) The anecdotes start with the organization’s founding in 1905 and carry the narrative through to the schism which precipitated its collapse in the mid-1920s. Along the way, the movie assembles an incredible array of primary materials — the photographs and footage of meetings, protests, and strikes are interesting, but the true draw for history buffs is the associated cultural artifacts that directors Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird have found. There are of course copious selections of bangers by Joe Hill and others from the Little Red Songbook; even better are the agitprop cartoons produced both in support of and opposition to the Wobblies’ actions. A WWI-era animated short depicts the Wobblies as a rat in a storehouse undermining the war effort, while a political cartoon from an IWW newspaper features a “pyramid of [the] capitalist system” with workers at the bottom (“We work for all. We feed all.”,) soldiers in the middle (“We shoot you”,) and magnates and on top (“We rule you”). It remains depressingly on-point.
That much of the Wobblies’ rhetoric has either held onto or even gained relevance when seen in 2022 is one of the more sobering elements of the film. At the time, the documentary was reclaiming labor history that the government and industry had studiously worked to erase. In the modern day, the resources of the internet have made such information control more difficult, but the history and importance of the IWW are still either buried or drowned out with noise. As a result, over 40 years after it originally came out, The Wobblies can still serve precisely the same function it used to.
The restoration of The Wobblies opens in select theaters starting April 29. It will be available on VOD platforms May 31.