What I remember the most about the first time I engaged in union action is the feeling of community, the thrill of the common fight. We raised our fists together in photographs, organised in email and Facebook Messenger threads, celebrated small wins and agitated for bigger ones. I’d never felt that in a workplace before – like I was a part of something bigger. It made me determined and it made me proud.
This worker solidarity and its storied background, reaching back hundreds of years, is explored in comics journalist Sam Wallman’s new long-form work. A textured, extensively researched work combining personal experience with a comprehensive visual history, it’s a great introduction for newcomers – the back of the book includes an illustrated glossary – and a touching ode to the movement for existing members.
Wallman argues that in today’s increasingly precarious gig economy and casualised workforce, when workers have fewer rights than ever before, there’s never been a more critical time for collective action. He also issues a reminder that many workplace benefits often taken for granted – sick leave, long-service leave, paid parental leave, even the weekend – were won as the result of unionists fighting tooth and nail. Unionism is presented as the antithesis to capitalism – bosses need us much more than we need them.
The artist’s bold style, consisting mainly of primary colours, makes the work visually compelling. There’s a real dexterity in form across the book’s 10 chapters – some pages are laid out in a more traditional, gridded comic strip style, while full-page, often wordless illustrations call to mind more free-form graphic novels. Readers may recognise Wallman’s work from the posters and murals he has designed for various social movements – some pages recall this style too. His creative agility demonstrates the many possibilities of comics.
The book is most engrossing – and infuriating – when Wallman shares his experience working for a year as a picker in Amazon’s Melbourne warehouse, where he convinced colleagues to unionise. The comic format brings this story to life as Wallman’s character fuses with and disappears into work – hands melting into a trolley, brains seeping out of bodily crevices. At times, I feel like I’m more a body than a mind, he writes. These claustrophobic panels hammer home the monotony of the work, and the cruel bind of capitalism is revealed when characters purchase items from Amazon to allow them to carry out the work more comfortably.
In moments of work, colleagues are sometimes depicted as anonymous and faceless – a cog, just as the corporation sees them; but in moments of cooperation and comradeship, their faces come into focus. The unionists who have come before, whose work is often rendered invisible, are depicted as ghosts. These artistic choices fortify the work and give it additional depth.
What’s hugely evident across the work is Wallman’s passion for, and belief in, a better world. In the reflective chapter Critique, Limitation and Contestation, he acknowledges some of the historical shortcomings of labour movements, such as a lack of inclusivity and corrupt leadership. These thoughts are funnelled through two characters, both union members at different levels of engagement. Here, Wallman dispels myths about unionism and suggests paths forward, as well as urging readers to engage in critical thinking to demand positive change, rather than unquestioningly accepting all factions of a movement as progressive.
Near the close of the book, a character asks Wallman’s character: How are you gonna articulate how unionism feels? Like, that feeling when you see someone who has been disempowered their whole life stepping up? When you see someone who was self-interested stand up alongside someone else, whose life is totally separate to theirs? Someone fighting for a stranger or whatever. How the f— are you gonna draw that, how are you gonna make the reader feel that?
No f—en idea, Wallman replies, scratching his head.
But reading Our Members be Unlimited, I got that feeling again, the one I had the first time I joined a union: strength and power and determination and pride, combined with a deeper understanding of everything that had led to that moment. I reckon that’s a job well done.
Our Members Be Unlimited by Sam Wallman is published by Scribe, $39. 99.
The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. .