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“The Wobblies” and International Workers Day

It is telling that March 8, universally recognized as Women’s Day, and May 1, just as universally recognized as International Workers’ Day, started in the U.S.

March 8 is acknowledged in remembrance of that day in 1908 when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter work hours, better pay, voting rights, and an end to child labor (their slogan was “Bread and Roses” – bread symbolizing economic security, and roses a better quality of life). 


International Workers Day also originated in the U.S. to memorialize the day in May 1886 (it was actually May 4), also known as the Haymarket Massacre, when a peaceful protest by thousands of workers in Chicago was met by a violent confrontation between the police, labor workers and anarchists, ending with tens of people dead. It became the symbol of the international struggle for workers’ rights.

The Haymarket Affair as it was called, created widespread hysteria against immigrants and labor leaders. Four anarchists participating in the riots were found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder after attacking police with bombs and were sentenced to execution by hanging.

In 1889, an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions designated May 1 as a day in support of workers. Five years later, U.S. President Grover Cleveland, uneasy with the socialist origins of Workers’ Day, signed legislation to make Labor Day—already held in some states on the first Monday of September, the official U.S. holiday in honor of workers.

However, May 1 is universally recognized as a national holiday in countries all over the world, from Europe to Russia to Latin America to Africa (but not in the United States). And that’s why Kino Lorber is re-releasing a restored 4K version of the 1979 documentary The Wobblies, now in Landmark cinemas in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Seattle San Francisco, Detroit, Denver, Cleveland, Park City and Portland, among other major cities in the U.S.

The documentary, which had a limited release in the U.S. in 1981 after its premiere at the 1979 New York Film Festival, and was never distributed around the world, was included last year in the National Film Registry. It was directed by Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer, an independent documentary director, one of the few women working in 16 mm, and was produced mostly with women as contributors and principal crew members, shot by pioneering camerawomen Sandi Sissel and Judy Irola. It is a compelling look at the birth of the labor union in 1905 Chicago – the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose members were nicknamed Wobblies, and at its subsequent rise and fall within the span of about 20 years. At its peak in 1917, the “One Big Union,” as it was called, reached 150,000 members, its efforts at organizing unskilled workers into one big union thus changing the course of American history. Membership declined dramatically in the late 1910s and 1920s amid conflicts with other labor groups, particularly the American Federation of Labor which regarded the IWW as too radical, and due to government crackdowns on radical, anarchist and socialist groups during the First Red Scare after World War I.  

Narrated by Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, it follows the stories of unskilled workers in factories, sawmills, forests, mines, docks and wheat fields as they organize and demand better wages, health care, overtime pay and safer working conditions. One-on-one interviews with former workers, in their 80s and 90s at the time of the shooting, were conducted for the documentary.

The IWW’s work actions and strikes were meant to both obtain some control over workdays, wages and safety, but also to gain ownership of the industries where they worked, clearly threatening the very foundation of capitalism itself if it succeeded.

Alternating archival silent film footage, interviews, cartoons, photographs, posters, original art and classic Wobbly songs mixed with Italian labor movement songs sung by the many Italian immigrants who were part of the movement, the Wobblies emerge as rebels who risked their lives and years in jail to obtain eight-hour workdays, decent wages and safer conditions. One older interviewee wept remembering the way her then-young husband had been dragged away by the police from a protest, while others remembered the dangerous rides on freight trains to reach places in hope of work under abusive and horrible circumstances.  All the interviews recall vividly the desperation and determination that drove America’s most radical labor movement which came to life in 1905 and then disappeared, after 20 years of bloody attacks from the defenders of the status quo.

“When we started production on The Wobblies in 1977, our goal was to rescue and record an almost completely neglected chapter of American history as told by its elderly survivors,” say Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer in their director’s statement. “We never imagined then that the themes of labor exploitation, anti-immigrant legislation, and racial and gender discrimination would resonate as strongly today.”