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The Wobblies (1979) – DVD Review

The Wobblies DVD cover art


Directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer
Narrated by Roger Baldwin


  • Interview with the filmmakers
  • Interview with historian and author Paul Buhle
  • Original Recordings of IWW songs
  • Photo gallery
  • Film maker biographies

Released by: Docurama.
Rating: NR
Region: 1
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.

My Advice: Rent It.

Early in the last century, a new labor union began. They accepted everyone who was members of the working class: blacks, women, immigrants. They weren’t interested in working within the system like the AFL or the Teamsters. They wanted to change the world, and make it so the workers benefited from American prosperity, not the few heartless robber barons that ran the monopolies and the government that aided and abided them. Whether they were singing in solidarity or busting the heads of some strike busters, they were a force to be reckoned with. But while the organization bickered over the impact of the Russian Revolution, the authorities struck back and used patriotic sentiment and the sweeping powers generated by The Great War. The organization was mortally crippled, but their legacy lives on. They were the International Workers of the World, the I.W.W. They were The Wobblies.

[ad#longpost]I was a little apprehensive about another historical documentary. When you view as many as we do, the slick production style you get from the typical History Channel production wears a little thin. So watching this was very refreshing. For one thing, there are no talking heads. You know: professors dispensing their wisdom to the television audience. More often than not, this technique comes off as “This is how I think and since I have a PhD. so should you.” You also don’t hear from the leaders of the movement since many were killed at the time or died over the years. In this documentary you hear from the rank and file, the men and women who were there at the Lawrence textile strike and the Bisbee deportation and all the other battles the workers fought.

And make no mistake, this is not “fair and balanced.” There is no corporate flack explaining how police brutality, employer abuse, and kangaroo courts were necessary to maintain the viability of the free market. The men and women interviewed simply wanted “bread and roses” and the respect they deserved, not mere subsistence. Interspersed with their revelations are songs from the I.W.W.’s Little Red Songbook, their famous recruiting tool. Without the powerful and invasive media we have today, a rounding rendition of “The Internationale” or “Solidarity Forever” could spread the union meme far and wide. Of course, like any documentary there is the usual stock film and photos from the era but the filmmakers focus on their participants, many who still feel the passions that made them band together and fight the bosses that made their lives a living hell for the almighty dollar.

There are some nice features that came with this disc. One is a reminiscence of the two filmmakers about creating this film. The talk about how little was available on the I.W.W. and how they resorted to posting notices on street corners and advertising in union newsletters to find subjects to interview. Also, they mention how the lean style in the film was more about lack of money than a decision on technique. Another featurette has the historian Paul Buhle discussing how the struggles of the I.W.W. reflect on the struggles with globalization and the too cozy relationship of big government and big business we have today. You can also listen to some of the songs featured in the documentary from the Little Red Songbook. All in all, The Wobblies is an important look at where the working man and woman have come from and hopefully will never go to again.

The Wobblies

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