The “Wobblies” Documentary Reminds Us Why Bosses Are Still Scared of the IWW

The “Wobblies” Documentary Reminds Us Why Bosses Are Still Scared of the IWW

The “Wobblies” Documentary Reminds Us Why Bosses Are Still Scared of the IWW

The recently rereleased 1979 film can teach today’s workers how to throw their weight around.


In 1913, Irma Lombardi, a silk weaver in a Paterson, N.J., joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). She wanted a living wage as well as recognition for her labor, and she saw in the IWW an organization that connected the two: “work, good wages, and respect. That’s what they wanted for the workers. To be people, not nobodies.” Lombardi is one of 16 members of the IWW interviewed in the recently rereleased documentary Wobblies (the 1979 film directed by Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird had been available for free online, but since its rerelease by Kino Lorber is available on proprietary streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime). The film recounts the union’s philosophy, culture, and strategies during the 15 years between its founding and its suppression, a time when gross inequality was the rule and several decades of negotiation and legal reform had failed to improve the position of most workers. Composed of documentary footage, songs from the IWW’s Little Red Songbook performed by folk singer Utah Philips, interviews, and narration by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) founder Robert Baldwin, Wobblies is an important correction to the conventional wisdom that the IWW was a failure—as well as a reminder that its successes were the result of its willingness to take radical positions.

Historians disagree on whether history is or even should be “usable,” but past struggles, even if they don’t provide a replicable set of strategies, remind us that what now appears to be settled was once contested and that representation—historical, fictional, or otherwise—is always political. For example, IWW organizers were called “agitators” by employers, police, and local politicians who capitalized on the public’s fear of violent anarchists, but from Lombardi’s perspective, “they weren’t agitating us, they were telling us the truth.” Employers—whether the workplace is a university or a restaurant—continue to characterize union organizers as outsiders who do not represent actual workers or understand the “special” relationship that the employer has with its employees. Wobblies—a film about a revolutionary union composed of the most precarious workers—reminds us, in a way that a written account could not, that actual, living workers did want what the union helped them to collectively imagine. Lombardi, for one, was not at all put off by the union’s revolutionary demands. On the contrary, they made intuitive sense to her:

“They used to say about owning the factories, which I think would have been a nice thing to do. We would have all worked happy. Gotten the profits for ourselves, which would’ve been nice instead of one man or two. What was wrong about that? They didn’t talk really bad…. Who wouldn’t like it like that? Instead the others are making millions and you’re making nothing.”

Many of today’s most precarious workers are rediscovering their own power. In 2021, a Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y., voted to unionize. Since then, 100 other locations in 25 states have also voted to form unions with Workers United, a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). More locations will soon vote on whether to join Starbucks Workers United. Despite the fact that only 1.2 percent of food service workers are currently organized, the odds seem to be in the union’s favor; only one store that held a vote in Buffalo decided against unionization. It seems inevitable that at some point adversaries will accuse the union of disrupting the “partnership” that Starbucks claims to have with its baristas, and someone will accuse the workers of asking for too much or being unrealistic. Revisiting the history of the IWW—not its popular representation as a failed, fringe movement but as a radical union capable of great organizing feats—is a way to remind ourselves that realism is in the eye of the beholder.

In 1905, socialists, anarchists, and labor leaders gathered in Chicago, Ill., in what secretary of the Western Federation of Miners William D. Haywood called “the Continental Congress of the Working Class.” Dissatisfied by the American Federation of Labor (AFL)—which they viewed as divisive, discriminatory, and politically conservative—the convention sought to form a union that would be revolutionary and inclusive in theory and practice. The result was the IWW, its members often dubbed “Wobblies,” which sought to organize all workers regardless of skill level, sex, race, or citizenship. Not only did the IWW fill a practical void left by AFL’s lack of interest in the so-called “unskilled” worker and discrimination against African Americans, immigrants, and women; it invoked a revolutionary horizon beyond immediate bread-and-butter demands. This is not to say that the IWW did not organize for higher wages and safer workplaces—it did. But it was also engaged in an ongoing campaign of political education that was inseparable from these organizing activities. The ultimate goal was not a pension and upward mobility, but the end of capitalism and workers’ collective control of all industry.

The IWW did not have the organizational staying power of the AFL, but it still exists and it is more than a paper organization. Over the past couple of decades, it has focused its attention largely on neglected service employees of, for example, pizza or coffee shops, grocery store chains, and bookstores: the contemporary equivalent of replaceable factory line workers. As Malcolm Harris has recently explained in The Nation, even though Starbucks workers decided to join the SEIU, the IWW did the spade work—planting seeds of dissent decades in advance. In 2004, he writes, organizing Starbucks employees appeared “impossible and pointless.” But the union’s long tradition of ignoring the limits of so-called “realism” meant that it was perfectly willing to work in impossible conditions. The IWW was arguably instrumental in the recent spate of petitions for union recognition at Starbucks locations across the United States. Like the itinerant workers in the lumber camps of the Northwest or immigrant teenage girls in textile mills, today’s service workers are low-reward and therefore low-priority for many mainstream unions. And yet they’re exactly the ones to whom the IWW has always directed its energy.

Beset with early legal defeats, the IWW was, for most of the 20th century, a marginal faction of the labor movement. This has made it easy to condemn the Wobblies as utopian or immature, doomed to failure for their lack of pragmatism. But this belies the fact that, as the ACLU’s Baldwin put it, “‘IWW’ was a feared phrase for 10 or 15 years in the United States.”

Even measured by conventional standards, the Wobblies succeeded in many instances, winning higher wages, shorter workdays, and safer conditions for its members. They not only successfully organized major strikes; they posed a fundamental ideological threat to the liberal order. The limits of negotiation is, literally, the first thing out of the organization’s collective mouth: The preamble to the manifesto adopted at the 1905 convention begins with the statement that the “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” This sounds extreme and intransigent because it is. Anyone who has been involved in a unionization drive knows that “the employing class,” as the preamble points out, does everything it can to convince its workers “that the working class have interests in common with their employers.” Instead, the IWW went to great lengths to demonstrate that workers—many of whom were immigrants from several different countries—had much in common with each other.

The organization was extraordinary—and extraordinarily threatening—for many reasons. Primary among them was its dedication to nondiscrimination. No organization can overcome the prejudices of its time or its individual members, but the Wobblies tried. They never chartered a single segregated local. Their pamphlets were translated into 12 languages. People still try to make the argument that socialism never arrived in the United States because of linguistic and ethnic divisions among the working class, but the IWW led several strikes that prove this defeatist, segregationist position is a fabrication. Some of its most celebrated organizers were women. Its newspapers ran articles addressing the harm racism posed to working-class interests and others explaining that prostitution was an economic rather than a moral issue. It took its readers seriously, providing translations of Marx alongside poems, songs, job listings, and news of strikes in France and Italy. Democratic principles did not spring spontaneously from diversity: Strike committees elected to negotiate with employers were purposely organized to include one member from each ethnic group involved in the strike. Historian Peter Cole’s important 2013 book Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia gives a full accounting of the Wobblies’ consciously multiracial character. Local 8, the subject of Cole’s book, was roughly evenly divided between African Americans, Irish and Irish Americans, and immigrants from other European countries. In other words, they were powerful because of their political radicalism, not in spite of it.

The lumber industry was exemplary in this regard. “Timber beasts,” as they were known, were poorly paid, seasonally employed, itinerant workers whose work sites were remote, constantly changing, and staffed through employment agencies whose purpose was, in part, to prevent organizers from coming to the camps. In 1916, Wobblies began to devote considerable energy to an organizing drive in the lumber industry. This meant organizing in the cities along the West Coast where lumber workers spent winters and time off (one can’t help but think of Chris Smalls organizing Amazon from a bus stop). A strike officially commenced on log drives in Idaho and Montana on April 1, 1917, followed by a walkout at the Sand Point Camp in Idaho in June. They then called a strike for the entire Spokane district (Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Western Montana). Capitalists organized in turn. On July 9, owners of camps and mills throughout the Northwest formed the Lumberman’s Protective Association and its members agreed to fine anyone who granted the eight-hour day $500. On July 14, in a rare instance of cooperation between typically hostile organizations, both the AFL and the IWW called for industry-wide strikes. Both unions demanded the eight-hour day, higher wages, and sanitary working and living conditions. By late July, the strike began to interfere with cantonment construction necessary for housing soldiers. Ship carpenters in Gray’s Harbor County, Wash., refused to handle lumber from 10-hour mills. Meanwhile, employers steadfastly refused to grant the eight-hour workday.

The strikes involved at least 40,000 workers and cut production industry-wide by four-fifths. Another estimate puts the shutdown at 75 to 90 percent of capacity for mills and camps in Oregon and Washington for the month of July. The strike officially ended in the fall of the same year, but Wobblies continued to “strike on the job,” returning to work but restricting production, slacking off, and causing “accidents.” They frequently acted as if they had won the eight-hour day—quitting work on their time rather than their boss’s.

These strikes were so successful for the same reason that the IWW was so furiously crushed. Lumber was a war industry. In addition to being a necessary material for housing construction, Northwestern Spruce in particular was needed for the airplanes with which the United States was supplying itself, its allies, and—unofficially—its enemies. Workers recognized their power. To use a contemporary and overused term, they were “essential.”

Two years later, IWW offices were subject to the first coordinated interstate raid by the Bureau of Investigation (soon to become the FBI) and over 100 members, including most of the leadership, were tried in Chicago and found guilty under the Espionage Act. State-level criminal syndicalism laws allowed continued harassment after the wartime acts had expired. Conditions in lumber camps, however, improved drastically. The threat posed by the IWW resulted in one of the first major interventions by the federal government in labor relations. During the war, lumber companies were forced to concede to wage and hour demands. And the apparatus put in place to eliminate IWW influence in the camps provided lasting infrastructure for practical reform. The result was not ideal from a political perspective; the Wilson administration created its own alternative to the union, the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, and embarked on a campaign of counter-propaganda that lasted until the National Labor Relations Act made company unions illegal. But the Wobblies’ show of force brought progressive reform to the camps; it continued to be a terribly dangerous job but conditions did improve. 

Even though most major labor unions would scoff at the suggestion that the IWW has any real clout, bosses apparently still find the organization intimidating. The transformation of complex, contingent, and powerful social movements into historical relics is often an effective way to diminish their living importance. The commemoration of the IWW by Kino Lorber, Amazon, et al. could have had this effect, but it did not. A hundred years after the organization was nearly crushed by courts and cops, its ideas remain vibrant, alive, and a little bit dangerous, no matter how you package them.

In New York City, Wobblies (re)premiered at Metrograph—an independent theater that has recently been plagued by accusations of bad labor practices and whispers of NDAs and other unsavory management practices. The original plan was to hold a Q&A on opening night, but it was canceled at the last minute, prompting speculation that the theater’s management did not want to encourage a forum on working conditions. This decision is insignificant in itself, but it is telling. One of the major distinctions between the IWW and other labor unions has always been its emphasis on revolutionary education. It was notorious for labor organizing as well as a series of free speech campaigns that were repressed as brutally as any strike or material threat. Indeed, this has led many to dismiss them as “only” propagandists. But the IWW has taught us, among other things, that ideas are powerful: They pose material threats. Starbucks knows this, or it wouldn’t have attempted to interfere with its employees’ efforts to talk to one another about a union. The Wilson administration knew this, or it wouldn’t have made it illegal to send IWW propaganda through the mail. And Metrograph’s management seems to have sensed it as well.

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