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Filmmaker to show re-released union organizing documentary at The Neon

Poster of "The Wobblies"
Poster of "The Wobblies"

Filmmaker Deborah Shaffer will be at The Neon tonight (Thursday, September 8) for a screening of her 1979 film The Wobblies with a Q&A session afterwards. It’s about the Industrial Workers of the World–the labor union that had over one hundred and fifty thousand members during its heyday in 1917. The IWW’s mission then and now is to organize “One Big Union” for workers across all industries. WYSO’s Chris Welter caught up with Shaffer to talk about why she thinks her film is as relevant today as it's ever been.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):

Chris Welter: You were able to do this film when the early members from the heyday of the IWW from the 1910s and 1920s were still alive. Why was that important? And can you talk about the advantage of talking to people who are actually involved in something instead of historians when you're making a documentary?

Deborah Shaffer : This film in particular, I mean, some people have criticized it for being kind of like popular history and not scholarly enough. But our purpose wasn't to make a scholarly study of the IWW. And we don't cross the T's and dot all the I's about the scholarly background and the analysis and all of that. Our goal was to capture the experience, the lived experience of the living people, and I think that's what Films are about: telling stories and about emotions. I've said this so many times: the best thing that could happen to me after someone watches my film is that they are interested enough in the subject to go read a book about it.

Welter: Union songs were featured prominently in the film. Why did you do that?

Shaffer: Well, because they were featured prominently in the organization. Many of the interviewees in the film sort of burst into song during their interviews, and initially we didn't ask anybody to do that. But the very first person that we interviewed, Sophie Cohen, who was in the Patterson strike, she did it just spontaneously. She was telling us a story and she just burst into song and we thought, this is so wonderful that then we started asking everybody to sing their favorite song. They're singing whatever songs they could remember. It was such an important part of the organization, and I think it's a very, very important part of the legacy of the IWW, you know, culturally, and it's an important element of the film.

Welter: So why do you think this film matters to an audience in 2022?

Shaffer: I never would have predicted this but I think the film is more relevant now. Because of the conditions of labor right now in the United States, because of the division between rich and poor, because of the Gulf that has gotten vaster between the corporations and the people who work for them. At the time we made the film, almost 25% of American workers belong to a labor union, and today close to 10% do. I mean, we actually need a union movement more than we've needed it in the United States in a very long time. We released the film in fall of 1979, and we had our premiere at the New York Film Festival, and that was right before Reagan was elected. One of the first things Reagan did was break the air traffic controllers union, breaking their strike by firing all the air traffic controllers. That was the beginning of the end in some ways of the American labor movement. The film also talks about the situation of immigrants, of foreign labor, of the prejudice against them. I mean, there's stuff that's said in the film by A. Mitchell Palmer that echoes what we've heard from politicians in the United States in recent years.

Welter: What do you hope is the film's legacy?

Shaffer: I don't think I'm the one who should say what I want the legacy of it to be. I mean, the film lives on and that is so thrilling to me that the film has this new life and new relevance and the organizing that's going on at Starbucks and Amazon and all the other museums and the art venues. It's just so exciting to me that the film is relevant and that it's not like a sort of dead history, that we're keeping the spirit of those people alive and everything they fought for and believed in. The people themselves are such an inspiration, you know, they're just regular people and they were very dedicated to what they believed and they lived their lives according to a set of principles they believed, and they died that way.

Chris Welter is a reporter and corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Chris Welter is the Managing Editor at The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Chris got his start in radio in 2017 when he completed a six-month training at the Center for Community Voices. Most recently, he worked as a substitute host and the Environment Reporter at WYSO.