A few weeks ago something unexpected happened on Staten Island, Amazon Warehouse Workers voted to create the first Amazon union in the United States. The news was met with jubilation not least because this classic David and Goliath battle is the type of drama that proliferates news cycles. However this battle is far from over for either Amazon or the new Union as one thing corporate American hates more than paying their taxes it is a unionised labor workforce.
Unions are nothing new in America but there seems to be to much willingness to allow corporations like Walmart, Starbucks, Amazon and others to use all their might, power and money to hinder their workforces in there attempt to join or create unions. A political sociologist might go into more meaning behind why, even in 2022, corporations don’t want to see their employees as human or as essential to their business. What Amazon Labor Union did is as equally small as it was monumentally big as by the union has placed a spotlight on the circumstances and conditions that thousands of employees are experience. They have also reopened a salient debate about workers rights and the conditions they have to endure. And yet when it comes to labor unions, similar to what Chris Smalls has created with Amazon Labor Union, they are treated with contempt, distrust and fear by the mainstream.
After watching Stewart Bird & Deborah Shaffer’s award-winning 1979 documentary "The Wobblies" I wrote the above paragraphs. I was incensed and upset. To be really honest I more furious that in 2022, well over 100 years since the International Workers of the World Union (I.W.W) was formed, labor workers around the world are in as equally dire situation as those in 1905. I will admit I am being a tad dramatic. Workers today have some laws that protect them and they have multiple workers rights that give them some form of protection, however these laws and rights are limited and easily exploited by corporations. But to understand who and what "The Wobblies" where and what they hoped to achieve Silk Worker Irma Lombardi puts it quiet poetically “To be people, not nobody.” The core of what the I.W.W desired was to give all working people dignity in their work and in their lives. In Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States he describes the I.W.W as “courageous” and despite their reputation afforded them in the press “they did not believe in initiating violence, bud did fight pack when attacked”.
The industrial landscape of America at the turn of the 20th Century is one of innovation, opportunity and growth which was aided by mass migration to swelling metropolises. Migrants, immigrants, blacks, whites, women all made a beeline for opportunities offered by these new industrial corporations. For most of "The Wobblies" the work being offered was labour intensive and backbreaking. “The work was so rough you had to use hand trucks and two men would have to load it.” James Fair, Longshoreman. Death, injury, exhaustion, fatigue at this time workers had little protections and where exploited with no healthcare or work safety.
Directors Bird and Shaffer capture a genuine piece of American history through their documentary that powerfully recreates, through interviews, cartoons, posters, news and voice actors the significant role "The Wobblies"played. In 1979 there would have been little chance to interview many surviving Wobblies and yet the former members they did have the opportunity to interview shed a tremendous and insightful light on the work of the I.W.W. Moreover they each beautifully share what being part of "The Wobblies" meant to them. The only way to be true to "The Wobblies", their movement, memory and legacy was to interview the “rank and file” members. By avoiding putting to much focus on the leadership of the I.W.W Bird and Shaffer place most of their focus to the normal members who each shared powerful, touching and at times funny stories of their experiences in the I.W.W.
Violet & Jack Miller, Irma Lombardi, Dominick Mignone, Tom Scribner, James Fair and Katie Pintek underscore the core value of being considered part of "The Wobblies", which was a celebration of the worker and of solidarity. And being interviewed in 1979 decades since the collapse of the I.W.W the passion and belief in the fundamental human right to fair pay, work, and treatment is palpable. Men and women became Wobblies to lift each other up, to better themselves, their situation and saw one another as equals. Zinn goes further to say that the I.W.W in the short years it was active “became a threat to the capitalist class…”* and this is what Bird and Shaffer captures with through their interviews. These last remaining members of an important but forgotten labor union did the impossible it seemed, it was bettering their members lives.
Each of the interviewees give a sense of respect towards "The Wobblies" movement and what their role in it meant. "The Wobblies" was a union for everybody irrespective of ‘Race, creed, colour, [sex], … if he’s an active wage earner within the industry he’s entitled to membership.’ Jack Miller. For the early 20th century this is monumental. Long before the Civil Right’s Movement in the 1960s "The Wobblies" where advocating at type of equality that seems impossible to believe. Unfortunately Bird and Shaffer only managed to interview one surviving African-American member of "The Wobblies", James Fair, a longshoreman whose parents moved the family to Pennsylvania for better prospects and even though Fair would experience racism in his job the fact that I.W.W was the only union that accepted black workers was something of a social and political revelation.
But it was the story told by Joe Murphy, a man with the look of somebody that has lived a big long life, that was truly eyeopening. Murphy says that ‘riding a freight train was a miserable existence…’ but for so many migrant workers this was the only way they could make a living. There is a myth around riding freight trains that has been built up over the decades. Perhaps it was because of the Great Depressions which ironically seemed to romanticise this boxcar life. Books, songs, and films at times suggest a careless freedom of the open road, this eternal drifter, became part of the myth that has become a quintessential part of Americana lore. But hearing how Murphy describes the experience clearly illustrates that this was no fairytale or moment for quite contemplation. This was a last resort for thousands of migrant workers moving from city to city in desperation for work.
Murphy’s detailing of the freight train life, aided by old images of men riding boxcars to Mark McClintock’s ‘Hallelujah I’m a Bum’, is a darker and sadder image than the romance of the drifter existence. Not only would these men be giving up lives, families in order to find work they also risked their lives on the freight trains daily with the prospect of being robbed or killed. Owing to the reputation "The Wobblies" had gained in the short time a union man carrying their I.W.W card was seen as untouchable, protected, they became seen as people to respect and fear.
When the might of the state, the press, corporations, whether local or national, are set against you it can be impossible to survive. It becomes almost too easy for them to demonise or “other” you and the cause you are fighting for. In the eyes of the wider public it becomes near impossible to maintain your focus or your message. The I.W.W and "The Wobblies" movement might have had some internal issues, what political organisations doesn’t, but at it’s core the movement was about giving dignity to the working people. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could argue against these principles but people did, and corporations still do but if it wasn’t for "The Wobblies" we might never have seen what was possible. Every day stories come out about one company or another in how they are finding more ways to exploit their workers. Workers who, through no fault of their own, have to take jobs that provide them very little in terms of worker/job security or benefits. As profits continue to rise the workers have continued to be left behind and there are even fewer options of improving their lot in life.
At one co-director Stewart Bird asks on of "The Wobblies" Tom Scribner why people feared the I.W.W, to which Scribner says “I’ll be damned if I know…”. It is easy for us to believe that profits are the only thing that are keeping corporations from doing right by their work force but that is misdirection. In fact I would argue that profits are not even a top 5 reason why corporations balk at the idea of labor unions. I think, as described by the interviewees in "The Wobblies", the issue is about dignity, humanity and decency. The I.W.W worked because at the start they believed fully in what they preached, opened up to everyone, and didn’t discriminate on race or gender and by doing so they created a much more cohesive Union built on the truest of all principles, solidarity. As the Union grew so did its reputation not only for organising in ways not done before but because of their achievements. And even though the membership of the I.W.W might never have been huge** but they became disruptors and a threat to the establishment. It is this success that they had that ultimately led to the governmental propaganda campaign against them, the trails and the imprisonment of members and the leadership. "The Wobblies" gave the average working men and women hope. Hope that they could achieve a better life. Hope that they can be treated with dignity. Hope that through solidarity they could achieve fair wages and good jobs.
In all countries and in all corporations there will always be a need labor and it should never be forgotten that the world, as Katie Pintek says, relies on our labor and it might not matter if “you are but a poor man but without [your hands] nothing moves”.
* p330. A People's History of the United States; Howard Zinn
**p331. A People's History of the United States; Howard Zinn