With all the political, social and cultural unrest happening all over the world the Wobblies, a 1979 groundbreaking documentary from filmmakers Stewart Bird & Deborah Shaffer based on the IWW (International Workers of the World) Union, is sure to upset, anger and perplex new audiences. The Wobblies, founded in 1905, had a mission to help working men and women and to see that they got paid a fair wage and, most of all, were treated with humanity. Over 100 years since the founding of IWW corporations continue to ensure their workers do not have the dignity or humanity they deserve. The contribution made by those former IWW members is vital and at times heartbreaking that this fight for fair treatment, wages, life and opportunities continues.
We spoke to Stewart & Deborah about making this documentary and it's place in American film history.
How do you feel about the the movie getting restoration and getting such a prestigious screening this month?
Deborah Shaffer (DS): Well, in a way it's a huge surprise of course. I mean, when we made this film in 1979, you never think almost 50 years later people will still interested in it. But one of the shocking things really is, I think, because the film is still really very relevant. The film has lasted not just because of its of what it is as a movie, as a film, but because of the relevance of the material, which is both good news and bad news, in a way it would be nice if it was just past history, but it's not it is present history. It's present day. What's going on all around this right now. Look at Amazon look at Starbucks. So we are thrilled.
What is the issue that Workers Unions face in the US and why is it always seen as such a negative rather than a positive for all workers?
Stewart Bird (SB): You think by now everyone would be unionised. We’d all have a better workforce, a happier workforce. It contributes to the economy if workers are making a decent wage, but they still fight it tooth and nail, they still use a lot of the same tactics to stop the unions, to try to divide people, through class, race, gender. 'The Wobblies' were doing all that at a time when industrial unions weren't allowed at all. The state came down with the full force of the local governments and eventually national government against them. And people's lives are at stake. You don't have that now but look at Amazon where you still get that opposition from one of the wealthiest corporations, one of the wealthiest individuals, he doesn't want a union. It's his first defeat with just 8,500 workers who started on their own with no support, just out of need to have a union and be protected for the basic life things of having a decent job and better working conditions for the people so they could have a life. They're up against the same stuff. It's not over, he's gonna challenge it again. And there are a million other workers at Amazon that haven't won. This is just 8,500. So I think the Wobblies is very relevant that way.
DS: And it's no secret. In fact, in some ways, I’m not an economist and they don't have all the statistics at my fingertips, but the divisions between the wealthiest Americans and everybody else has only become larger and larger and larger and larger. Wealth has become more concentrated in the hands of a small group of people and working people are so struggling to make ends meet. When I grew up in the 1950s it was possible for a working person to make a really decent wage at a factory job and support a family and send their kids to college and have good benefits and have a good retire package. Nowadays people need three or four jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. People's children are not doing better than they used to do, which was true maybe 25, 30 years ago. I think the American dream has soured and the wealth is going ever upwards. And so the need for unions is just an attempt to begin to redress this imbalance. Some of that imbalance nobody's against people making money. But you know, the corporations are not paying their share. Neither are the wealthy individuals who run them nor are the companies in their taxes.
In the 1960s in the UK women of the Ford plant in Dagenham (1968) went on strike even though Ford tried to threaten the UK Government and the workers. And eventually the government passed the Equal Pay Act. And to me, it is always strange that Workers Unions are seen in such a negative light when they are simply fighting to give people the very basic needs to have a decent life. Which is what a lot of the people that you had interviewed in the film are saying. It's not about getting more. It is about being treated as human. And I just find it so strange that Amazon doesn't just provide the tools that the workers need, which is better wages, healthcare, better working conditions, support rather than spending millions upon millions in courts fighting battles with their employees, but they seem so intent on ensuring that the humanity their employees are seeking is never there.
DS: We wouldn't disagree with you.
SB: You’re absolutely right. This was very articulately put.
Where did your interest The Wobblies come about? I know that you were both working research separately, but then came together to make this documentary?
SB: Deborah and I we met in Detroit when I was working on a film called ‘Finally Got the News…' (1970) and we let it later drifted apart. When we were both back in New York years later and I did a play on the Wobblies, The Wobblies: The U.S. vs. Wm. D. Haywood, et al. [a play], which was at the Hudson Guild theatre. And it was about the trial in 1917. Deborah came to that and she said ‘let's do a film’. And she was right, of course, but it took me a little while to get on board with that but then we just jumped on it. And we had some connections, as Deborah said, with people who came to see the play some of the old Wobblies who were around the area. And then we just we just try to find the last surviving people who could tell their stories history from the ground up. And we were lucky, we found enough of them to try to tell a story.
DS: Somebody had given me a book called Mill Town, which had been published in the fifties. It was a photo book which had been banned for being too left wing, which just seems extraordinary. But under the Senator Joseph McCarthy era this book was banned. It was about the Lawrence Strike (1912) in Lawrence, Mass., which was a major IWW organising victory, they had had leaflets printed in 23 languages and Bill Haywood showed up as did Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. And I was just astounded that I had never heard about this history when I had been growing up. I had been pretty well educated in the United States and public schools and in university.
And I had never heard of the IWW. And I think Stu has a similar story. It was just shocking to us that this history and these events have been written out of the history books and without the I WW, we wouldn't have the CIO. The IWW sort of fell apart mostly from the repression that came down on it and some from internal conflict about those who wanted to sort of stay more with their anarchist tendencies and those who wanted to follow the Soviets. They were very keen on what was going on with the revolution in Russia in 1917. But many of those people joined the organising for the CIO and we owe a lot to the Wobblies, to their fight for the eight hour day for their fight for workers and for better working conditions.
Was it easy to get them involved? As you said, there weren't many survivors alive at the time. So was it easy to get people to talk to you? In a lot of the interview is they share some very personal experiences and stories, which are quite powerful, was there any apprehensions about approaching certain subjects and certain experiences that they had as part of the IWW?
SB: Well, I'm just gonna tell a story that Deborah mentioned the other day. When we first started going out, especially we went to Patterson, New Jersey for Patterson Silk Strike, we found Irma Lombardi and who am I forgetting here?
DS: Oh, Dominic.
SB: Right. And they both insisted that they had nothing to say. They cooked lunch for us, an incredible meal and they welcomed us in but they said, ‘are you sure you want to interview us?’ They added ‘You know, we don't have very much to say, it's not that interesting…’. We had come with a camera crew and everything and it turned out to be amazing, their stories are amazing. But it was very difficult to find some of them, it was easier to find a few, but we worked very hard to find ones who'd never been in any of the books written by the experts and the PhDs. We found people that they had never found. We found James Fair who was still alive and he had been a black dock worker in the local in Philadelphia.
DS: Well, he was our most challenging one to find, we didn't know of any black Wobblies, and when we were researching for this film there was not yet any internet. So we actually found people by putting personal ads in magazines, like The Nation and Mother Jones and in newspapers around the sort of history, newspapers and newsletters, but in the case of James Fair and Philip Del we actually created a leaflet printed on coloured paper saying ‘Was your grandfather a Wobblies?’ and we had people handing them out on the docks in Philadelphia. And we also called senior centres and churches, eventually I think we found James through either his church, senior centre, or some organisation said they knew of somebody. But as Stu was saying, these people, they were extremely modest and nobody had ever asked them about this material in the 50 years since they had been active when we showed up and they were sort of surprised to see us and that we really wanted to interview them, they said ‘Are you sure?’.
"And it was extremely unique that we used these voiceovers and then we used the cartoons and the actual artwork and the music from the era."
What was the reaction like when the movie was released? Did you expect the type of response to the movie that you got?
SB: Well, I don't think we knew. I mean, we showed various cuts of the film to filmmakers, rough cuts, fine cuts, just to get an idea we sent that clip to the New York Film Festival.
DS: We showed them the whole film as well, even though we were still editing it. Funny thing is they had, and this was so shocking back then, they had a double system projector. They've had the work print and our soundtrack on two separate reels and that's how they looked at it. Somebody had given me a tip as I would have to pick up our film as it was our work print, they told me ‘if you arrive just when the screening is supposed to be finishing you will know if they've watched the whole film or not. Because if they don't like the film they'll turn it off right away.’ And so I arrived when it was supposed to be done and sure enough they'd watched the whole film. And I knew then that maybe we were gonna be invited to play at the New York Film Festival, which was, you know, the thrill of a lifetime...it was quite amazing.
SB: We were the first film, I believe, that was sold out for both nights, 1100 seats. We brought whomever we could bring any of 'The Wobblies'. I don't really know if we both remember exactly who was there, but I think Roger Baldwin, a few of the people from Pat & Sophie and we introduced them to the audience.
DS: I think we were in a box in the theatre and everybody stood up. Dominic had passed away. People passed away very quickly after we finished the film. I mean, they were very old at the time and his family came and gave us a bottle of his homemade wine.
SB: That is true. And Roger Baldwin at that time was 95. He was the founder of the ACLU and he went on two years later to be in ‘Reds’.
DS: I wanted to add something, I think you sparked something that I did not want to forget, the actual filmmaking. Because we didn't have the leaders, we had no choice, we had to make it with only the voices of the people who were living and the leaders that all died so we couldn’t include them, and that’s one of the things that makes 'The Wobblies' so special, the other thing is we didn’t just use the interviews. We came upon this idea of using voiceovers with actors (including the legendary Rip Torn) reading from scripts which was partly inspired by Stu play. We used dialogue from his play at the beginning and the end of the film and we had somebody read the whole opening section: What's your name? Are you a citizen? And then at the end with the judge saying to the jury, Are they guilty? These were very effective devices that we came up with that had not been done in documentaries in 1979. At the time documentaries were generally heavily narrated. Stu and I came out of different filmmaking traditions, which is sort of anti-war films and such. And those didn't have narrators at all but history films had narrators. And it was extremely unique that we used these voiceovers and then we used the cartoons and the actual artwork and the music from the era. There's so many elements in this film. I think that now we take for granted. Now everybody does all of this, we all kept learning from each other. There's a big pool of documentary filmmakers and people kept building all the films built on each other and even ‘Reds’ (Dir. Warren Beatty, 1981) built on this also. His researchers were in contact with Stu and I a few times during their production. The Wobblies came out a good 10 years before Ken Burns ‘Civil War’ series hit the airwaves with his dramatic voiceovers. But it had not been done before.
And what would you say that you took from this whole experience?
SB: It felt like a privilege to be able to talk to these people and to make the film. And I just felt incredibly proud Deborah and I put it together as quickly as we did, and I felt incredibly proud that it had a great reaction, as this was such an important part of history. Someone said to the National Film Registry ‘you have to put this in an archive because it is an archive that you're putting in the archive.’ I feel very proud, and I know Deborah does as well, for having done this and the fact that we can show it 43 years later. The film still has an impact this was a piece of history that people still don't know about.
DS: I have to give a shout out to New York Women in Film & Television who did a preservation in 2003 of 'The Wobblies' and because of that the negative was donated to the Museum of Modern Art. And then MoMA did the digital restoration. So all these other institutions jumping on board is what made it possible now for the new release of this gorgeous digital version. And I think in addition to being proud we're both humbled by it too. As I said, you never know when you start a film where it's going to end up and what is going work and what is going succeed and what is going last. And if you had asked us both 43 years ago, if we expected to be doing this now, we would have thought you were crazy.
Finally, your movie has several old union songs. And I was just wondering, do you have a favourite that you included in the film?
SB: ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ is one of my favourites. I love all the songs and as Deborah explained we interviewed Sophie Cohen who just started singing the song while we were interviewing her, which we never asked her to. Then we thought 'Hey, this is not bad. You know, we should ask everyone to sing something that was relevant to what they went through.' But I would say ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ is my favourite.
DS: I don't have a favourite. I love them all. I love the whole idea of the music. ‘Rebel Girl’, we used some old recordings and we recorded some ourselves with Labor Singers, Mike Seeger, Alice Gerard, and Joe Glazer. I love them all. It's like asking which is your favourite kid.