Review: “Our Members Are Unlimited: A Comic About Workers and Their Unions”
In a political landscape where rising costs of living and attacks on working conditions confront a labor movement crippled by weak leadership and bureaucracy, it’s easy to forget what the fight really looks like. In Australia today, despite the best efforts of grassroots activists, the mass struggle of the working class is on the decline. For a generation of young workers, that means not so much forgetting what real militant unionism looks like, but never knowing it to begin with.
Against this backdrop, Melbourne activist and artist Sam Wallman’s new comic Our Members Be Unlimited: A comic about workers and their unions is a rare and vital thing. The book charts a selected history of union organizing, dispelling myths and citing all sorts of lessons along the way.
A member of the Workers’ Art Collective, Wallman produced an impressive body of work for use in numerous labor and activist campaigns. It’s no surprise, then, that his first book is equally practical, laying out a real case for grassroots union activity at a time when it is sorely needed. This argument is presented so dynamically, and is so firmly rooted in Wallman’s own experience of trying to organize in an Australian Amazon warehouse, that the call to action is impossible to ignore.
There is a sense in Wallman’s style of illustration that nothing is static. Each panel is loaded with faces that are caught mid-fold with relief or exasperation, and everything is underlined or emphasized with the curvature of constant movement. The result is an irresistible dynamism that allows Wallman to move with ease between the personal, individual and momentary, and the political, collective and historical. Given the narrative content, it is not just a technical feature of the work. Rather, it is an evocation of a politics that frames things in a bigger picture, one that the book fundamentally seeks to change.
A particularly effective example of this is in an autobiographical sequence in which Wallman’s character talks to a fellow Amazon worker about how they both see themselves as characters from Greek mythology to get through their annoying changes. Wallman’s character tells the myth of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill again and again. The rock is first depicted as a commodity being carried down the aisle of the warehouse, but as the metaphor is worked out, Wallman becomes the Sisyphus of ancient Greece, who begins to stare at the rock he is grows day after day, only to see cracks it has gone unnoticed before – cracks that suggest another world beyond this drudgery is possible. The barrier that prevents workers from seeing these contradictions for what they really are then materializes in the form of the DING! handsets Amazon tears the character out of this moment of inquiry to bring him back to the deafening monotony of warehouse work.
The strength of the book lies in its refusal to give in to this feeling of alienation and nihilism. Wallman’s aesthetic and observational choices allow him to bring out the humanity, not only of each individual worker who populates the panels and margins, but also that expressed organically, through the characters as a class. There is a sequence in which Wallman reflects on the sensory elements of warehouse work – the sound of rain on the roof, the light reflecting off the polished concrete floors – which, in its insight and tactility, contrasts with the soulless detachment that the workplace is designed to imbue its workers with.
Then there are the stories of workers organizing collectively. Among them are Bangladeshi garment workers leading nationwide protests and Deliveroo drivers staging wildcat strikes. There are British workers fighting fascists and construction workers in Australia uniting against homophobia. All of this is tempered by Wallman’s own experiences of applying basic labor organizing lessons and tactics in his own workplace. Each of these anecdotes is rendered in the same bold, wonky line art that, even when chronicling victories, suggests there is still more latent power contained within the mass of united workers. Although that propulsive sense of restlessness is somewhat lost as the illustrations become more abstract to accommodate large chunks of text, Wallman never wavers in his portrayal of the ability of workers to implement meaningful change.
After this chosen history of union struggles and the past of working-class resistance, a ghostly figure argues that telling these stories is not simply wallowing in nostalgia for the good old days. The character says: “My vision of work is governed by nostalgia for an era that has not yet been born”. Yet the specific expression of hope that Wallman locates in past struggles is the most moving and prescient aspect of Our members are unlimited. Because it’s not a passive hope that things will get better over time. It’s the kind of provocative hope that, though forward-looking, heeds Walter Benjamin’s assertion that it’s not some imagined future liberation, but a real, concrete story of suffering, of sacrifice. and resistance that energizes the working class and lights the way to a better world. Thus, the book begins with a list of the victories of past struggles, followed by the often brutal penalties incurred by those who dared to fight. This is not to dissuade readers from organizing, but to inspire them.
In the midst of a period of small class struggle and massive crisis, this inspiration, and the patience and courage that Wallman associates with it, is needed.
At the beginning of the text, a character browses through the books he is packing at the Amazon warehouse and comes across a passage from Stephen Jay Gould: “I am, in a way, less interested in the weight and the convolutions of the brain of ‘Einstein only by the virtual certainty that people of equal talent lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops’. To that end, while a useful political resource and pot story, Our members are unlimited is also a reflection of our luck. Because Wallman’s talent has, perhaps miraculously, not fallen victim to the desperation and drudgery of capitalism. Moreover, it is a small but very welcome victory over this barbaric system that he dedicated this talent to fight for us.
Our members are unlimited is published by Scribe.