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Classic Documentary Review: 'The Wobblies' Reflects on the History of American Labor

The landmark 1979 documentary The Wobblies receives 4K Restoration and theatrical release on International Workers Day.

By Sean PatrickPublished 2 years ago 6 min read

On April 28th, 2022, the AFL-CIO will celebrate Workers Memorial Day, a day dedicated to those who lost their lives in the battle for better working conditions, better pay, and generally better treatment of the American working class. International Workers Day follows soon after on May 1st and again, labor unions will be heralded for the remarkable strides made from the early days of the labor movement, days remembered for remarkably brave men and women who defied the ruling class and fought on behalf of the working class.

The heroes of the labor movement in the early 1900's were many and many were known as The Wobblies, members of the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World. Why they were called The Wobblies is a rather convoluted and apocryphal story that is better explained in the new 4K Restoration of the groundbreaking 1979 documentary, The Wobblies. A newly restored print of The Wobblies has been made for exhibition on International Workers Day on May 1st, 2022, with plans for showings in New York and Los Angeles, and for this restored print to be housed at the Modern Museum of Art.

The story of The Wobblies dates back to 1905 in Chicago, Illinois. There, workers who were tired of back breaking labor for little pay began working towards creating an organization that would help them fight for better working conditions, better pay, and a more even playing field with the corporate and ownership class. This movement did not come about easily or without conflict as greedy barons out to protect their massive profits often turned to violence and graft to prevent workers from mobilizing together to improve their station.

Directors Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird weave the remarkable history of the IWW, The Wobblies, through remarkable interviews with the people who were there during some of the most shocking, violent and awful moments in the history of America’s industrial revolution. These interviews include both workers on the lowest ends of the economic ladder and the activists who stood shoulder to shoulder with those workers to fight for their betterment, their pay, and even a basic level of respect.

Among the extraordinary interviews in this groundbreaking documentary is a conversation with the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, Roger Baldwin, who not only talks about being inspired by The Wobblies in helping the fight for Civil Liberties, but also provides narration for the documentary, helping shape the history of American labor through the landmark violent conflicts between major corporations and labor unions. Conflict is the keyword as owners used any means necessary, including thugs and organized thugs like The Pinkertons, to destroy anyone who simply asked that they be paid a fair wage for an honest day’s work.

Every corner of America has their own notable labor vs. ownership standoff. In 1932, close to where I live, 21 members of a local labor union were injured and 2 died while protesting the use of out-of-state, non-labor union members, to work on a Dam in Marseilles, Illinois. The out-of-state workers arrived armed with guns and the local laborers defended themselves with rocks and bare fists. It was an ugly fight that eventually ended when Police arrested the non-union workers for their own protection and the company behind the project backed down and hired the local union members for the job.

All around the country as laborers came to demand respect, better pay, and better working conditions, The Wobblies were there in Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle, and numerous lesser known towns around the country. The Wobblies paved the way and many paid the price with blood, broken bones, and unwarranted jail time only so that they could stand up for worker’s rights and basic dignity. The victory of The Wobblies, as modest as those victories were, are the 40 hour work week, living wages in industries that never had such thing before, and the minimum wage

That said, time hasn’t been kind to Unions. A corporate backed campaign to demonize unions as corrupt and target those who would attempt to organize under union banners has created a massive and still growing wealth divide in America. The Wobblies who bravely fought for workers rights are still out there but, in the more than 40 years since this documentary was made and released, Union membership has declined and the role of labor unions has been denigrated by accusations of scandal, those that are real and those that have been created as propaganda.

That said, there is hope. The documentary The Wobblies is receiving its re-release at a time when Amazon employees and Starbucks employees have made moves toward unionization. As the wealth disparity grows between the super-rich and the poor, the time is ripe for new Union leaders to emerge. Hopefully, a documentary as thoughtful and urgent as The Wobblies can serve as a reminder of how important it is for workers to unite and work together for continued improvement in wages and conditions.

Details on how to see The Wobblies and a statement from the Filmmakers about the documentary is below…

4K Restoration of the 1979 Landmark Labor Movement Documentary by Stewart Bird & Deborah Shaffer Screens Across the Country for International Workers' Day (May 1)


Week-long NYC Engagement Begins April 29 at Metrograph

Filmmaker Statement

When we started production on The Wobblies in 1977 our goal was to rescue and record an almost completely neglected chapter of American history as told by its elderly survivors. We never imagined then that the themes of labor exploitation, anti-immigrant legislation, and racial and gender discrimination would resonate as strongly today. We couldn’t be prouder to have the film included last year in the National Film Registry, and to have Kino Lorber present the new 4K MoMA restoration nationwide on International Workers Day.

—Stewart Bird & Deborah Shaffer

The Wobblies' was digitally scanned by the DuArt Digitization Center in full 4k resolution using the DFT Scanity. For the ultimate equality, the original cut ABC&D rolls of negative were the source for scanning and conforming into 4K 16-bit DPX files. The DPX media represents the new “digital negative” and was subsequently color graded and restored to create the archival and distribution masters. The new archival master is stored in MOMA’s Film Preservation Center.

The Wobblies will be available 0n May 31st, 2022, to rent or own on all major VOD including Apple TV, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube, and Kino Now.

movie review

About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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