Ernest Riebe and Joe Hill, “Mr Block”

About Mr Block

Mr Block first came to life on November 7th 1912, as a comic strip character created by IWW political cartoonist Ernest Riebe.

“Mr Block” is a cautionary tale, told through slapstick and sarcasm, an eternal victim of what we would call, these days, “false consciousness”. (The Wobs of the time used the word “bonehead”). He finds himself embroiled in disaster after disaster at work, due to his operating premise that what the boss tells him is true- but he never learns his lesson.

Riebe encapsulated certain aspects of the Wobbly sense of humour with this 3 year series, and so Mr Block was very popular with readers. In 1913, Joe Hill cemented the character’s popularity with a song.

“Mr Block” was published in the little red song book and was immediately added to the solidarity singing repertoire far and wide.

“Mr. Block is legion,” wrote Fellow Worker Walker C. Smith in 1913. “He is representative of that host of slaves who think in terms of their masters. Mr. Block owns nothing, yet he speaks from the standpoint of the millionaire; he is patriotic without patrimony; he is a law-abiding outlaw… [who] licks the hand that smites him and kisses the boot that kicks him… the personification of all that a worker should not be.”

In 1913, 3,000 striking hopfield workers in California sang “Mr Block” as part of the protest repertoire. Wobbly historian Fred Thompson wrote:

…”Mr. Block”… was being sung by striking hop pickers in Wheatland, California when the sheriff moved in and provoked a riot. At the subsequent trial of organizers Ford and Suhr, the song was read by the prosecution and the songbook given to the jury, the local paper noting, “it was not the song itself that was so suggestive as it is the flaming red cover of the book wherein it was contained, Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent.”

The Australian IWW also made use of the Mr Block in-joke during these years. Tom Barker told Eric Fry this story in 1963:

It wasn’t long before the authorities got curious about who was editing [Direct Action] the [Australian IWW] paper, and they couldn’t decide whether it was Tom Barker, Tom Glynn, or who it was. We got the idea that we’d make it a little more difficult, so we put on the paper: “Editor: Mr A. Block”. For this A. Block we got a block of wood and a dingy old top hat someone had inherited. We put the hat on this block of wood and kept it behind the editorial room and if anybody came wanting to see the Editor, we took him in; “Allow us to introduce you the editor, Mr A. Block.”
When the detectives came around they got very mixed up.”

The same year Joe Hill wrote “Mr Block”, the character became the protagonist of America‚Äôs first radical comic book. Twenty-four comic strips were compiled and published by Riebe, and copies were advertised and sold through the IWW press. The comic strip is a fine and still funny demonstration of the way the IWW attacked hypocrisy and political manipulation through satire; a very old working class technique, much deployed by the Wobblies in this era.

To read the comic strip itself, visit this link. Some industrious fellow worker has scanned and uploaded all of them (I think) and deserves your hits, at least.

If you must have a soundtrack, check out this montage set to Utah Phillips:

A Digression

The featured image on this post is the cover of a 1984 reprint of Riebe’s book, edited by Franklin Rosemont, my favourite Wobbly scholar and artist. Not incidentally, he was an editor for many years at the wonderful socialist publishing house Charles H Kerr, who published a lot of his work, including Rosemont’s wonderful biography of Joe Hill. Not to mention practically every pamphlet or book the US IWW made over most of the 20th Century.

Back to the Story

Leon Fink referred to the anarchist writer Bruno Traven as “biographically mysterious”. It’s an apt description for working class radicals of the early 20th Century. In some ways there is a great deal more material on them than any other kind of industrial worker, but the records are not found in the sort of institutional sources traditionally used by historians. IWW organizers spent a great deal of time avoiding authorities of one kind or another, so are hard to trace through immigration or arrest records, that kind of thing. They lied and changed their names to get away from cops. Since many of them had foreign names, the cops that did catch them mispelled names.

The best place to find material on the IWW is in their own publications. The IWW extended their ethic of worker self-sufficiency to their cultural production, and so their publications are filled with contributions, both factual and creative, from the members. It’s a journey into the way this marginalised class of workers saw and expressed themselves, and so it is a kind of insight that arrest records and ship manifests cannot provide.

Ernest Riebe

Ernest Riebe is still obscure as a figure even amongst IWW historians, so it is worth going into some details here. Riebe was one of the many German immigrants who came to the United States seeking work in the early 20th century. Like Joe Hill, he found a radical home in the IWW, and devoted his creative energies to its culture.

He was an in-house political cartoonist for the IWW press from 1912 to 1922. His distinctively slapstick style features regularly in the headline cartoon of Solidarity in the late 1910s and early 20s. I know this from experience. I saw most of them while ruining my eyes at the Reuther Library microfilm station.

In 1919, Riebe wrote, illustrated and published “Crimes of the Bolsheviki”, a classic example of satire through reversal, another very old technique for propagandists. One of my favourite examples of that is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. Savage.

Joe Hill

If you need an introduction to the most famous Wobbly in history, you can find it easily via a keyword search. I don’t need to recap the Joe Hill story here.
An almost equally famous Wobbly named Big Bill Haywood sent Joe Hill this telegram the night before he was executed: “Goodbye Joe: You will live long in the hearts of the working class. Your songs will be sung wherever the workers toil, urging them to organize.”
And they are, to this day. Enough said.

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