Customer Reviews: The Wobblies
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on March 18, 2008
A review of the life of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as Wobblies) leader Big Bill Haywood. An appreciation of the role of the Wobblies in early 20th century labor history by American Trotskyist leader (and former Wobblie) James P. Cannon. An urgent call to help old time Wobblie folksinger/storyteller Utah Phillips. A reading of a biography of "Rebel Girl" Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (later, unfortunately, an unrepentant Stalinist hack). And now a DVD review of the film The Wobblies. For a writer who holds no truck with anarcho-syndicalist solutions to the problems of the class struggle this certainly has nevertheless turned into the Year of the Wobblie. And, dear friends, that is as it should be. Before the formation of the American Communist Party in the immediate aftermath of World War I the Wobblies were, front and center, the central revolutionary labor organization in this country. We honor those struggles, the memory of those old comrades and try to learn the lessons from their fights. And that, ultimately, is the beauty of the film under review.

Most docudramas or documentaries are filled with learned `talking heads' telling us what the historical significance of this or that event meant. And that concept has its place in our search for understanding of our history, good or bad. The filmmakers had seemingly gone out and found every last old time rank and file or middle level cadre Wobblie that still uttered breathe at the time of the film creation (1979). Here we get the voice, sometimes loud, sometimes confused, sometimes haltingly, sometimes not very articulately telling the story of the Wobblies down at the base-the place where all class struggle ultimately has to be resolved.

We hear old itinerant lumberjacks; migrant farm workers, hobos and `stiffs' get their say. And frankly it is very nice for change of pace. Damn, I wish we had some of those, old as they were, feisty labor militants around today. These were the American equivalent of the rank and file of the Russian Bolshevik organization. They represent the memory of the class in better times. Interspersed in between interviews is excellent film footage of some of the early labor struggles (some that I had never seen before like the Bisbee, Arizona deportations-to the New Mexico border- of the copper mine strikers in 1917). And in the background accompanying the footage many of the old Wobblie labor songs created by Joe Hill and others in order to bolster labor solidarity. Ah, those were the times.

Note: This film gives a good chronology of the development of the IWW from its founding in 1905 to the hard times during World War I and its aftermath. It provides less information about latter times. Moreover, outside the opinions of the various old Wobblies it is hard to get a sense of the disputes in the organization, and there were many particularly about the relationship with the Russian Revolution in 1917, and what caused the failure of the old organization (apart from the obvious destructive role of the government crackdowns). For more on the politics check my entries in this space on James P. Cannon on the IWW and the Life of Big Bill Haywood.
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VINE VOICEon July 20, 2008
"To be people, not nobody"--that, according to a Patterson, NJ, woman interviewed in the film "The Wobblies," was what she and her fellow-workers wanted to be. And after enduring both the exploitation of the bosses and the apparent indifferent of the conventional labor unions, they believed they found the vehicle to humanity in the Industrial Workers of the World, the "one big union" founded in Chicago in 1905.

"Wobblies" is the story of the IWW, from its origins to its near destruction during World War I. Disliked by industrialists and labor leaders alike, the IWW was really the only radical workers organization the US has ever spawned. It accepted everyone who earned a wage, crossing all color lines in a day and age when the more conventional labor unions refused to admit people of color. Led by stalwarts such as Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the IWW grew in strength from coast to coast, organizing first lumberjacks and miners, and then factory workers, stevedores, and other unskilled laborers. It fought the Lawrence textile mills in 1912 and won; the Patterson factories in 1913, and lost; the the railroads on the Pacific coast in 1917, and won again. It was an up and coming force, and it scared the heck out of the political and financial powers that be.

So in 1917, with Woodrow Wilson's blessing, the government busted the IWW on rigged charges that it encouraged young men to resist serving in the armed forces. Virtually all the leadership was sentenced to incredible prison sentences under the Espionage Act, and the Wobblies, already beginning to splinter internally from feuds between anarchist and communist members, declined.

But it was a great and glorious dream. One of the things that comes through most clearly in the interviews with now quite aged Wobblies is how articulate, intelligent, and even now idealistic they come across. There is a dignity to them of people who have fought the good fight, even though they eventually lost.

Another very good aspect of "The Wobblies" is the director's wise focus on song. The martyred songwriter Joe Hill is, of course, famous way beyond IWW circles. Thanks to Hill and others, Wobblies throughout the country were inspired and educated by dozens of songs. The old-timers interviewed in the film can still sing them by the boatload.

When I was a young man working my way through college by taking one crappy job after another, I got radicalized and joined the Wobblies. My membership lapsed years and years ago. But seeing this film makes me think that I ought to sign up again. Perhaps the dream isn't dead after all...
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My wife & I both enjoyed this. She went for the old footage. She likes American Pickers, Antiques Roadshow, all historical but the real McCoys. And I enjoyed The Real McCoy revolutionary workers of the world UNITED! concept getting legs across the country. The capitalist, then, as now had the control, the means to power's strings. Although, as the film makers said(great extra section where they discuss the whole process of the film), the organizers had all passed on, so they dealt with the workers; I wanted to know the organizing side of the workers better. The captitalist perform to serotype, as typical of there being. Sort of a reverse Popeye, in other words the counterarchetype/Iams what I'ams. Power takes what they were & warps them, shapes them, and then spits them out into monsters that crave power and will DO ANYTHING to keep it.
Regardless of the label put on economics, Broad-Based(many workers) purchasing power(demand) remains essential for healthy markets, just as Broad-Based Ownership(many well-paid workers) remains indispensible for healthy democracies. The Washington consensus of Chicago economics(closed system vs. Web of Debt by Ellen Brown) puts the economic health of communities worldwide at risk.
Needless to say the battles hard fought to win worker's rights are being stripped away, as I write this. So I looking for an ENCORE performance 21st style. Altough labor's legs are wobbly, there numbers are Titanic in Strength. Just needs a way to get past the corporate press/media, to organize and get back what was lost and then some.

Yes, I like it! Workers of the World UNITE!

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on March 3, 2008
This is a good beginning point for anyone who wants to grasp whatever it is that can be called a "labor movement." In my eyes, the IWW (Wobblies) had it mostly right and its been downhill since. The Wobs were internationalist, anti-racist, militant, and understood the fact that an injury to one only goes before an injury to all (solidarity). They grasped that hierarchy and leadership can be a contradiction that is resolved in social practice. They were anti-racist, action oriented, and, to a notable degree, anti-sexist. Their critique of the AFL was on target; it was an is an arm of the employer disguised as a union and, today, the AFL-CIO and it'stepchild, Change to Win, stand for nothing the Wobs saw as vital principals. Educators, in particular, should use this dvd in high schools and universities to give our youth a view of what could be, and what has been--how the past, present, and future, connect. A great deal of leftist activity in the US can be tracked back to the founding days of the Wobs. The IWW was mostly demolished in the Palmer Raids but the IWW lives today, small, but still insisting, correctly, that "the working class and the employing class have nothing in common..." Anyone can see the influence of the IWW on the big education activist group in the US, the Rouge Forum. A good companion book would be Kornbluh's, "Rebel Voices."
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on October 27, 2012
The Wobblies is a wonderful, moving documentary about the great radical American labor union. I showed this to my labor law students, most of whom were far from hard-core union enthusiasts. They all enjoyed the film, and a few told me they found it really inspiring. Anyone involved with the labor movement, or interested in the history of radicalism in the US, should watch this movie.
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on December 12, 2010
At times there are very significant events in American history that are never covered as the parties to it did not get much input into the history text books. I'm an engineer and MBA, I am not, nor have I ever been a Union member or particularly sympathetic to them. This film has changed the last part. Given how labor unions have been decimated in this country since Reagan it was awakening to see what they contributed to what made this country great; the Yin (management) and yang (unions) that balanced to create a middle class in this country. Which is of course why the middle class is going away now since it's all Yin.

This film is really educational, It really bothers me that such a significant piece of American history was never taught in public school, or college. Regardless of your feeling about unions, you will walk away much less ignorant after watching this. I loved it and have watched it a few times since the level of detail about the history is pretty deep. If you start goggling "Wobblies" you will begin to realize what an impact they really had, and how dedicated and fearless these people were against a whole corporate world and government against them. Before this doc, I had never heard of them. Understanding the huge contribution they made in the creation of the middle class, that's just wrong.
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on April 9, 2013
I loved the story this movie tells. I really loved hearing the stories these people have to share. I had to watch this film for class to write a paper, and this movie makes it very difficult to use for class, because no names are given. The people being interviewed are not identified at all. So when describing them I had to say, one lady said this, the African American gentleman said that. Someone said this, someone said that. It would have been nice to at least have first names given somewhere on screen or something. It also would have been nice to know if the off camera voice recordings were attributed to a particular figure. At one point I think they may be either quoting, or playing a recording of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But it is impossible to know for sure. The story itself was great though. I especially like that they spoke a lot about the illegal and unfair practices both big business and the government itself was using during this time frame. When learning about the labor movement we often forget that people gave their lives, and risked their lives every time they stood on the picket line, or went to a meeting. Truly inspirational people. If they had just given names to the people interviewed this film would have gotten 5 stars from me.
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on December 28, 2014
What I like about this documentary is that it includes interviews from individuals who were part of the IWW, which are invaluable in understanding this early, radical labor movement. What is not helpful, and is rather off putting, is the lack of contextual commentary that helps viewers understand who the "Wobblies" were and how they fit into the larger labor movement. I purchased the documentary so that I could show clips of it to my U.S. history class--we will certainly not be watching the whole thing.
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on August 17, 2010
Good history for any union member. We really need to appreciate where we come from and what sacrifices were made by strong people in much tougher times!
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on March 5, 2011
This is the labor history they don't teach in public schools, or even many colleges, for that matter. A hell of an inspiring story with some great interviews with courageous American radicals who suffered and struggled for the working conditions and labor rights we take for granted today.
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