From the Archives: Organizing Outside the System – Deborah Shaffer and The Wobblies

Our 1981 interview with the filmmaker behind the classic doc

A scene from The Wobblies, the 1981 documentary about union activism in the early 20th century, screening at AFS Cinema this Wednesday

The history of union activism in America has rarely been captured on film – especially its earliest days – than in The Wobblies, Deborah Shaffer's 1981 history of the Industrial Workers of the World.

At 6:30pm, Wednesday, May 4, AFS Cinema will present a special retrospective screening of The Wobblies with Jane Little Botkin, author of Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained an American Family in attendance.

In the third issue of the Chronicle, dated Oct. 16, 1981, editor Louis Black and longtime critic and Screens section editor Marjorie Baumgarten interviewed Shaffer while the film was playing at the Dobie Theatre, then the center of Austin's art house scene. They discussed the film, activism, and the parallels between the rise of indie distribution and the political organizations of the early 20th century. Here's the original interview, online for the first time ever.

A wave of interest in independently produced American films is cresting across the country and in Austin in particular. You can see it not only in the screenings of recent independent productions at Laguna Gloria and CinemaTexas, but also in the success of films like Return of the Secaucus 7 and the willingness of a commercial theatre such as Dobie Screens to undertake a festival like the one currently running there.

Lest it appear that we are talking about a unified body of works, we should note that the single characteristic shared by these films is that they were financed and produced outside the Hollywood film industry. And, although there is a tradition of mostly short, independent films in this country under the umbrella of the avant-garde, the surprising thing about most of these recent productions is their feature length. Otherwise, they represent a wide variety of types and sources.

Some were made in New York and Los Angeles; others are regional works from across the country. Some are documentaries, while others are fictional narratives. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Deborah Shaffer, whose film The Wobblies is currently playing at Dobie in its American Independent Film Festival. The series was packaged by First Run Features, an independent distribution company which was set up by the filmmakers themselves, and which Shaffer describes as "in between a company and a co-op." First Run assembled fourteen films for a festival in New York and then sent it on the road, providing filmmakers like Shaffer the rare opportunity to have their films screened in commercial theatres across the country.

The original 1981 Chronicle interview with Deborah Shaffer
Shaffer, who co-produced and co-directed The Wobblies with Stewart Bird, describes the film as "a documentary about a labor union post-turn of the century." It seems appropriate that a film from this somewhat renegade independent film movement should choose a topic the most radical and ambitious of all early labor movements, the Industrial Workers of the World, known as "the Wobblies" for the two W's in the IWW. "Our goal in the film," Shaffer explains, "wasn't to put forward the IWW as the solution to the problems of the workers. We were interested in the issues that they were concerned about and some of their tactics, the ways they went about organizing and their kind of vision and energy. The issues they were addressing are as current today as they were then. In fact, more so now than when we finished the film two years ago.'

Founded in Chicago in 1905, the IWW was a radical labor union which embraced all workers, regardless of skill, color, creed, sex, religion or place of origin, at a time when the A.F.L. represented only skilled, American-born craftsmen. Labor conditions at that time were not too far from slavery. Strikes, no matter how just their causes, were ruthlessly broken by police, National Guardsmen and armed thugs, and workers were shot down in the streets and burned from their homes.

The Wobblies wanted to change those conditions in the most democratic way possible. Their idea was to form "One Big Union" united in the struggle against capitalism. Their manifesto boldly declared that "there can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life."

Hunted by law officials and hired guns, frequently denied the rights of free speech and assembly, occasionally framed for crimes they didn't commit and regularly thrown in jail, the Wobblies were nevertheless surprisingly effective in organizing workers across the country. In 1912, in the mill town of Lawrence, Mass., they conducted a stunningly successful strike against the powerful wool-producing monopoly, which required the organization of diverse ethnic immigrant groups. A year later they tried a similar strike against the silk mills of New Jersey, but this time the results were disastrous.

Shaffer's original interest in this project centered more on the Lawrence strike than on the Wobblies. "I had wanted to do a film about the Lawrence strike and had never raised the money, but I'd done a lot of research and a little work on the script."

Then she met filmmaker Stewart Bird, co- author of the play The Wobblies: U.S. vs. William D. Haywood et al., and they decided to make a feature instead of a short. "We borrowed some money to start filming, because we'd both had a lot of experience with projects where we looked for funds and looked for funds and the funds never came and the film never got made. So we decided just to start the film in order to give it some reality and a life of its own, and also because it was more fun than writing a grant proposal."

“There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.” - From the manifesto of the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies
After interviewing a number of former Wobblies, they put together a pilot and managed a grant from the [National Endowment for the Humanities]. Two years later they had completed a feature length film from some 25 hours of interview footage and another ten hours of archival material. In fact, their collection on the Wobblies became so extensive that they will compile it as a book later this year.

Through the combined use of interviews with surviving members, newsreel film clips, period photographs, anti-union propaganda and rallying songs, The Wobblies documents the heyday of the IWW from its founding to its virtual dissolution during World War I, when the government used the patriotic atmosphere to mount a decisive crackdown on the union. Narrated by Roger Baldwin, founder of the ACLU, the film is much more than an oral history project. Its extensive resources combine to reveal this tumultuous period quite vividly for our examination.

For example, we are shown a Walt Disney anti-union cartoon which tells the tale of Little Red Henski, a Bolshevik who incites the previously happy hens at Alice's Egg Plant to demand shorter hours and smaller eggs. As a Wobbly survivor recalls, 'We looked like such innocent girls, but conditions were so bad that we either had to stop living or become rebels. "

Yet The Wobblies somehow manages not to become too didactic. "I really disagree with that whole school of filmmaking where you have to tell people what to think," Shaffer admits. "I don't believe in spoonfeeding people and leading them through. There's been an attempt on the part of a number of filmmakers whose films are in this series to break with that didactic tradition of social documentaries and start making films that work primarily as films. That's certainly what I'm involved in and care a lot about.'

In fact, breaking with traditions, especially those of financing and distributing films, is what the independent film movement is all about. And it is only through a certain cooperative effort among independent filmmakers that we are able to see a film like The Wobblies. As Shaffer explains, "A bunch of us had feature-length films at around the same time and we were all sort of in the same predicament. We had films that we knew had an audience, that we knew could play, and no distributor who would take them on and do the right thing for them. So we ended up forming our own company, which is First Run Features, which brings you this festival. "

The success of their endeavor depends upon the willingness of theatres like Dobie to book so ambitious a program, which, of course, finally depends upon the box office support of an interested public.

Austin Film Society presents The Wobblies with Jane Little Botkin, Wed, May 4, 6:30pm, AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35 #3100. Tickets and info at

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The Wobblies, AFS Cinema, Jane Little Botkin, Deborah Shaffer

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