I Wobble Wobble

The Wobblies Directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer At the Orson Welles

FOUNTAINS, little marble statues in the lobby--this is the Fountainbleau Hotel. Call the reservations desk: "We have rooms for $65, $75, $85, $95 and $110 a night. For $110 you get an ocean view and a personal terrace." Gold paint everywhere, lots of brushed velvet, ornate, a little seedy, built to lure opthalmologists and funeral directors and Republicans from the North.

When the AFL-CIO holds its annual winter meeting, the Fountainbleau is where the leaders stay. No one knows how much they spend on rooms, but a good guess is that many are sunning on personal terraces. There's always been this streak in organized labor--The Wobblies includes one priceless still of Samuel Gompers, the first George Meany, in top hat and tails. But the difference between 1915 and the present, and the sad message of The Wobblies, is that today there is no opposition--and no higher vision--within the labor movement.

Big Bill Haywood, a veteran of the violent labor wars in the western mines, founded the International Workers of the World in 1905, his hope to organize the unskilled, minority and women laborers of the day into One Big Union. The group won its first big victory 20 miles from here in Lawrence in 1912, forcing the mill owners to shorten days and increase wages. A year later, the Wobblies suffered their biggest loss, when the silk manufacturers used police and scabs to maintain their grip. "We didn't include half of what we could have about government attempts to hurt the IWW," producer-director Stewart Bird says. "If we had, people simply would not have believed us."

But The Wobblies (a striking Chinese dock-worker unable to pronounce the letter "W" referred to his union as the "I Wobble Wobble" within earshot of a reporter) centers on the spirit, the tactics and the hopes, not the history, of the group. Bird tracked down a dozen men and women who were members, organizers, agitators, and they explain a 15-year campaign that was as much religion as politics. Dominic Mignone, so old and thin in the movie that it's hard to imagine he once worked in the mills, recalls the Lawrence struggle: "It came time for the strike, and the boss grabbed me. He said, 'Mike, if you don't cut it out I'm gonna throw you out the window.' Then I said, 'Listen, Peter, before you're gonna throw me out the window, I gonna go out through the door." "Work, good wages and respect. That's what they wanted for the workers. To be people, not nobody," Irma Lombardi, who picketed the Paterson mills in 1913, says.

The IWW professed a simple ideology; it hoped the "wage-slave" system would fall to be replaced by industrial democracy. It would be fair to call them "reds" though they were far from dogmatic. And their tactics matched the simplicity of their thought--the Wobblies organized and agitated wherever they went, setting up soapboxes, pasting up posters like the ones you occasionally see in the Square, big cartoons of strong men smashing the state. Pennants carried the One Big Union legend; there were no lapel pins, no sterling silver. Even the leaders were just old organizers; Haywood had learned how to blow up mines during the Colorado copper strikes of the 19th century, Mother Jones was a legend everyplace men went underground, trusting their lives to rotting timbers. In the Pacific Northwest, where the IWW enrolled almost every lumberjack, Wobblie Iry Hansen says, "The lumber companies were all so worried about those little people that were out organizing. They were not paid organizers; they weren't professionals or anything. They were just lumberjacks."


BIRD AND CO-PRODUCER Deborah Shaffer use hundreds of still photos, patches of newsreel footage, and the music the Wobblies sung to document both the conditions of the era (in the lumber camps, "they were afraid the bindlestiffs would carry out the plates so they nailed the plates to the table and washed them out with a hose after they were finished eating") and the nobility of the Wobbly effort. The still photos work better than the newsreel footage--the herky-jerky pace of old movies jars the viewer, and even then everyone insisted on waving and posing for movie cameras. Two animated cartoons shown in movie theaters demonstrate the depth of feeling against the Wobblies--in one, a rat (wearing the requisite Bolshevik beard) tries to steal an ear of corn from the stockpile of a virtuous farmer. Fortunately, the farmer's vigilance matches his productivity, and he exterminates the rat (labeled "Bolshevist--IWW") with two quick shovel blows. The music in the production is less authentic and less moving--sung too well, it sounds more studio than picket line.

There are subjects, and this seems to be one, that are almost too romantic to discuss objectively--Bird and Shaffer barely mention the internal splits that divided the IWW into Two Medium-Sized Opposing Camps, and they gloss over the unfulfilled need for an intellectual construct for the union. But what they do focus on is more important. J. Edgar Hoover cut his teeth on the Wobblies; in the face of government's crudest repressions, these immigrant laborers, farm-workers who rode the rails, and confirmed Marxists shone. The film opens with the interrogation of a Wobbly arrested for giving his soapbox message:

Jailer: Where is your home?

IWW: Cook County Jail.

Jailer: Before that?

IWW: County jail, Cleveland, Ohio.

Jailer: And before that?

IWW: City jail, Akron, Ohio.

Jailer: Look, are you a citizen?

IWW: No, I'm an Industrial Worker of the World.