Old rebels, remnants of a radical union that blazed and burned out like a shooting star, reminisce in "The Wobblies," a documentary on the International Workers of the World (IWW), the One Big Union.
"Wobblies" is film, but in the oral tradition. Interviews, with posters, archival film, photos and vintage cartoons, chronicle the left-wing group's rise in 1905 and fall during World War I.
The IWW, nicknamed Wobblies or Wobs, organized unskilled workers from the textile mills in the East to the lumber camps in the Northwest. Men and women of every creed and color joined. Their ultimate goal was to abolish the wage system, whether by sabotage, strike or slow-down.
Wobblies, recall the survivors, were massacred for street-corner organizing. They were jailed and beaten for striking; they were stuffed in cattle cars. Not even Walt Disney liked these "bolshevists." His studio produced a propaganda cartoon about the Little Red Henski who incites a strike at a chicken factory. "Shorter Hours!" squawk the leghorns. "Smaller Eggs!"
In the end, the union, which had remarkably organized the migrant workers without benefit of mass communications, was crushed rather easily by an enthusiastic young bureaucrat. J. Edgar Hoover, assistant director of the FBI's forerunner, the Bureau of Investigation, helped orchestrate a round-up of IWW leaders, who were then jailed or deported under anti-union laws.
But the IWW's egalitarianism lives on in the handful of remaining Wobs. One old woman spits on her palm, rubs her hands together and gleefully swears she'll be a rebel till the class struggle ends. The war isn't over for these eloquent old people. They sing the old solidarity songs: Joe Hill's "Power in the Union" and "In the Good Old Picketline."
"The Wobblies," directed by Deborah Shaffer and narrated by Roger Baldwin, sometimes falters, but it never falls down. It is a social heirloom, a labor of love for the love of labor. THE WOBBLIES -- At the Inner Circle.