"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...