Bread and Roses

Revisiting The Wobblies amid a labor resurgence

Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer, The Wobblies, 1979, black-and-white and color, sound, 89 minutes.

ARE WE TIRED of leftist infighting yet? The revolutionary fervor of two years ago is gradually dissipating into directionless, incessant debate over the correct path forward. Ours is not the first generation of radicals to be divided or silenced by liberal figureheads. A silver lining emerges, however, in the resurgent labor movement taking on Amazon and Starbucks, among other corporate and institutional giants. In recent years, a reawakening of worker militancy has rippled across the art world, resulting in widespread organizing efforts in the museum field.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art—whose own pioneering union, known as PASTA, formed independently in 1971—recently restored an important piece of labor history. The Wobblies (1979) details the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), one of the first revolutionary trade unions to organize across class, race, and gender lines. Directed by Stewart Bird Deborah Shaffer and currently screening at Metrograph, the documentary shows how the “Wobblies”—a nickname of contested origin—united a significant swath of the North American working class before the Red Scare of 1917, fostering solidarity among low-wage workers regardless of industry and nationality.

Premiering mere months before the inauguration of Ronald Reagan—who would soon deal a crushing blow to organized labor by firing more than 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers—Shaffer and Bird’s film interweaves sepia-toned footage of the late industrial era with testimonies from elderly silk weavers, longshoremen, journalists, and folk singers. They detail the IWW’s recruitment strategies and all-encompassing membership as well as their opposition to World War I and desire to abolish the wage system. The Wobbly position understood anarchy and sedition to be symptoms of Gilded Age capitalism. Thus their militant wildcat strikes and work stoppages, known within their ranks as “sabotage,” aimed to bring industrialists to heel.

This “collective withdrawal of efficiency,” as one unionist recounts, was met with indiscriminate policing and vigilante violence. State powers threw the book at them, issuing arrests, lawsuits, and deportations. The Ford company demonized the Wobblies as “Bolshevists,” cartoonists accused them of supporting Kaiser Wilhelm, and the mainstream press labeled them “agitators”—accusations still leveled against organizers today. Even American Federation of Labor (AFL) leader Samuel Gompers deemed them a “fungus” on the “normal, rational” labor movement (the film cleverly cuts to IWW member Jack Miller condemning the “AF of Hell”). Gompers no doubt felt threatened by the Wobblies’ universalism, as the AFL excluded women and promoted segregation in practice, contrary to their stated policies. 

A poster for the restored version of Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird’s The Wobblies (1979).

The IWW’s founding convention in 1905 brought together Socialist Party leaders such as Bill Haywood, Lucy Parsons, Mother Jones, and Eugene V. Debs. Over time, their ranks expanded to include historical figures like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, James Connolly, and Helen Keller. Yet one of the film’s strengths is its focus on lesser-known organizers, including American Civil Liberties Union cofounder Roger Nash Baldwin and Ben Fletcher, a Black longshoreman from Philadelphia. Fletcher cofounded and led a multiracial local unit of the Marine Transport Workers, which led to his arrest on treason charges. To this day, Fletcher is buried in an unmarked Brooklyn grave, with relocation efforts forestalled by New York’s bureaucracy.

Wobbly art and propaganda drive the documentary’s narrative, showing how the IWW’s legacy endures through cultural production. Photographs from the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, cut between hyperdetailed factoryscapes by self-taught painter Ralph Fasanella, while R.D. Ginther’s watercolors of street clashes illustrate the union’s rivalry with the Salvation Army (dubbed “Starvation Army”). Ralph Chaplin’s ubiquitous “Sabo-Tabby” black cat and “Time to Organize” designs appear in the pages of Industrial Worker and Solidarity, while nomadic farmworker Joe Murphy explains the origins of the wooden shoe symbol—or sabot—which purportedly came from French workers throwing their clogs into machinery when walking off the job.

As “One Big Union,” the Wobblies represented a united front of anarchists, socialists, Marxists, syndicalists, and radical trade unionists. They opposed the labor movement’s right wing, organized the unorganized, and introduced artistic traditions that continue today. They even had a “little red book” of songs composed by martyred unionist Joe Hill, among others.

Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer, The Wobblies, 1979, black-and-white and color, sound, 89 minutes.

Unlike in the AFL, women workers became lead organizers. “The IWW has been accused of putting the women in the front,” noted Flynn, who went on to chair the Communist Party. “The truth is the IWW does not keep them in the back, and they go to the front.” This sentiment is echoed by silk weaver Sophie Cohen: “You either had to just stop living or become a rebel.”

Nonetheless, patriarchal tendencies surface on screen, for instance, in clips of men talking over their wives. Despite an ideological commitment to equality, the organization’s membership—which, at its peak, reached upwards of 150,000 workers—remained overwhelmingly white and male. Moreover, the IWW’s global efforts rarely extended beyond “first world” nations, namely the US, Canada, and Australia. Still, it is worth noting that 45 percent of striking workers in Lawrence were women, while nearly half of the union’s 25,000 timber workers in the Jim Crow south were Black. On top of that, we know that the Wobblies counted thousands of Asian, Latin, and Native Americans in its membership, including in leadership roles, though the US Bureau of Investigation confiscated and destroyed most of their official records in September 1917.

Tragically, the US propaganda machine drove a wedge between IWW members after the Russian Revolution, and a 1924 split around the issue of centralization drove them further apart. Curiously, the film avoids addressing this period, which actually saw peak membership, instead ending with the First Red Scare in 1920. Further, the union was very much still around during filming, and continues to exist, though no younger members appeared in interviews. Were the filmmakers unaware, or did they think the organization’s later activity irrelevant in light of declined membership? Concerning the latter, time has revealed otherwise—consider IWW’s long-term efforts to unionize Starbucks.

“Sometimes in organizing, you run into a mess of trouble,” warns lumberjack Tom Scribner. A big smile washes over his face as he recalls a mill superintendent rushing him with a double-bladed ax. True enough, organizing is gritty work, and division can carry a human cost. Shaffer and Bird remind us of railroad magnate Jay Gould’s words: “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” As such, century-old footage of police strongarming women feels familiar, as do photographs of men staring down bayonets. But so too do images of workers fighting for a common cause that transcends individual self-interest. We call it “class war” for a reason.

The Wobblies opens at New York’s Metrograph on April 29 and will play in theaters nationwide on May 1 as part of International Workers’ Day.