Sam Wallman shows us the past, present and future of unions and workplace organising

July 15, 2022
Our Members Be Unlimited
Image provided

Our Members Be Unlimited
By Sam Wallman
Scribe, 2022

Sam Wallman has released his long-awaited first book, Our Members Be Unlimited, a comic about workers and their unions.

Wallman is an artist based in Melbourne with an impressive catalog of political comics, posters and graphics.

Our Members Be Unlimited looks at the past, present and future of unions and workplace organising. It is informed by Wallman's own experiences working as a stock picker in an Amazon warehouse.

Starting with slave uprisings in ancient Rome, later Haiti and then the formation of early trade unions in Britain, we gain an appreciation for the centuries of struggle before us that have given us the benefits all workers enjoy today.

At Amazon, Wallman endured the monotony, forced speed-ups and inhumane conditions contrasted with management corporate-speak. Exploited Amazon workers helped billionaire owner Jeff Bezos become the richest person in the world in 2018. Little by little, Wallman managed to convince his colleagues that their conditions could be improved through solidarity and joining a union.

A recurring motif in the book is a foot stepping forward. Each is a tiny quantum of progress in worker cooperation and class consciousness. They convey the idea of a multitude of people in many ways aggregating small gains in a consistent direction. From little things, big things grow.

American Marxist and revolutionary Harry Braverman explains: "My views about work are governed by nostalgia for an age that has not yet come into being." This comic is future focussed: how can we the workers apply and adapt the lessons of the past to our current situation?

Stylistically, Wallman deftly manages the complex use of space — at times like MC Escher or Diego Rivera, also taking inspiration from early trade union banners. We see workers meld minds, ropes strengthen human connections or break chains that restrain and contain. The earthy and controlled palette of maroon, bronze and dark teal works to maintain a thematic whole.

While Wallman is hopeful for unions, he is also critical. We see many characters and conversations that show apathy or reluctance to challenge the status quo. The decline in union membership in Australia and the rise of insecure work and the gig economy present huge challenges.

A very amusing appendix of "labour definitions" covers an assortment of bootlickers and black cats, scabs, stooges, hacks, goons and grubs, to ultras and trot-bots. The full range of very human foibles is on full display.

The book is useful for both encouraging new members to join a union and for existing members to increase their understanding. Copies should be placed in lunch rooms or included in member induction packs. Instead of emphasising the benefits of joining such as "member discounts", readers can feel the deeper and more meaningful reason of being part of something bigger than oneself, the collective struggle for better work and a better world.

Unique and urgent, Our Members Be Unlimited is aimed at a broad audience and well deserves to reach it.

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