With a title like The Wobblies, you’re probably expecting the next 90 minutes to either focus on some fantasy creatures from Return to Oz or something akin to The Monkees television series. But the deceptively playful title hides a history filled with strife and idealism set against the burgeoning labor rights movement at the dawn of the 20th Century. I need very little convincing to understand the importance of the labor movement, as it is the primary catalyst for most modern workplace conveniences — 8-hour workdays, paid time off, and worker’s compensation, to name a few. In 1979, documentarians Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer made an effort to archive the progress attained by the Industrial Workers of the World — one of the largest organized champions of labor in the early 1900s (and it still operates to this day) — and thus, this documentary was born.
“…a history filled with strife and idealism set against the burgeoning labor rights movement…”
The story is piecemealed through interviews of seniors who were members of the IWW during the earlier days of the movement. Its overall trajectory is strung through narration by Roger Baldwin, one of the co-founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. They regale the audience with personal anecdotes, as well as the macro events which shaped the relationship between the labor movement, trade corporations, and the government. We soon learn that the title is in reference to a pejorative term created to describe IWW members, which eventually was embraced and recontextualized as an endearing label amongst comrades.
First and foremost, considering the severe lack of documentaries on the subject, The Wobblies is an important archive of the victories and defeats of the early labor movement. It currently stands as one of the only records of the IWW from that period told by the people who lived through it. Their perspectives and testimonies are paramount to ensuring we never forget the sacrifices of those willing to give everything so that workers are treated as people.
"…an important archive of the victories and defeats of the early labor movement."