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Review

‘How are you gonna make the reader feel that?’ On Sam Wallman’s Our Members Be Unlimited

As a self-employed artist living in relative autonomy and precarity, I can feel untethered from the formal structures and conventions that shape our notions of ‘work’. I don’t observe a weekend or an eight-hour day; the line I draw between labour and leisure is indistinct. Twenty years have passed since I last reported to a ‘boss’. Even so, while reading Sam Wallman’s sweeping graphic love letter to unionism, I am reminded of the myriad ways I benefit from the revolutionary history of organised worker solidarity—a struggle that has re-modelled the framework of contemporary institutions and the imaginations of those who populate them.

Our Members be Unlimited offers an entertaining, well-researched and accessible history of unionism. Wallman traces this history from its antecedents—in ancient slave uprisings and the disruptive actions of English peasants in response to an emerging capitalist class—through to the current context of a global pandemic and exploitative gig economy. A world in which many hard-won workers’ rights and protections are diminishing.

The first true unions, Wallman shows us, met and organised in secret. Risking execution, incarceration or deportation, unionists ultimately secured the gains—such as liveable wages, mandated breaks and protections (at least in theory) for minoritised workers—that we now take for granted. Amongst these, Wallman counts struggles that we may not immediately associate with unionism, such as the preservation of green spaces and fights against conscription.

Through Wallman’s illustrations, this legacy is represented as a dutiful herd of benevolent ghosts, moving unseen amongst oblivious workers to bless the corridors of contemporary workplaces. ‘Precisely because of their success,’ he writes, ‘the wins of the past become invisible to us.’

While clearly devoted to the historical record, Wallman’s primary subject is the visceral. In the book’s final pages, the author depicts himself in meta-discussion. ‘So you’re working on this book,’ asks an unnamed interlocutor. ‘How are you gonna articulate how unionism feels … how the fuck are you gonna draw that, how are you gonna make the reader feel that?’

Wallman evokes the rhapsodic, to partly answer this question, through his distinctive illustration style. As though all matter—the sidewalks and warehouses, the semi-trailers, metal pipes, celestial bodies and human figures—were composed of the same soft flesh. Rendered in a narrow autumnal palette, and bold, theatrical linework, Wallman’s urban environments convulse, stretch and squirm. Against this backdrop of dizzying perspective shifts, his wide-eyed figures are similarly elastic, gripping and grimacing with the potential energy of twisted rope.

This biomorphism is most apparent within the book’s autobiographical vignettes, wherein Wallman reimagines his experience as an Amazon warehouse employee. ‘Where does my body end and my equipment begin?’ he muses in a state of spongy metamorphosis. ‘Is the cart I push an extension of my body?’

Wallman’s inclination to represent his world as a sprawling organism is not superficial, but an expression of what is perhaps the book’s thesis: that unionism may be less a series of discrete cultural phenomena and more a biological imperative. Wallman sees a prototype of unionism in the symbioses of sea life, the cooperative crown shyness of treetops and the subterranean unity of multitudinous mushroom roots. Elsewhere, Wallman explodes the metaphor, writing that early unionists came together ‘like the collision of alien debris / and dust / forming a planet.’

Hyperbolic or not, it is a compelling vision. Each page of Our Members be Unlimited is designed with the confidence and urgency of a poster, a placard. For the cause of unionism, the author’s cartoon avatar is a universalist, a determinist and a true ideologue; authentically engaged with both the utility and poetry of worker solidarity.

To his credit, Wallman remains clear-eyed about the many ways in which unions have been compromised, exclusionary or unequal. Yet, throughout this comic book, he maintains a charming and unshakable optimism. Our Members be Unlimited is underwritten with hope, drawn from Wallman’s conviction that, if only in the smallest of ways, working people will reach out to one another with care–and that contained within each of these intimate moments is a seed of revolution.

*

As I write this review, much of the Australian ‘left’ is applauding a newly elected Labor government. Founded in trade unionism, Labor is nominally a party of the working class. In reality, of course, Labor is openly committed to the most oppressive, corporatist, extractive and destructive policies upon the stolen Black land it occupies.

Australian Labor continues to incarcerate refugees in offshore prison camps while turning back the boats of those seeking safety. It continues to uphold settler-colonial hegemony and imperialism abroad. Its leaders are proactive apartheid apologists. Under Labor governments, the Australian state has incrementally militarised its police—a mercenary force deployed against the marginalised and the poor. Draconian anti-protest laws are disproportionately weaponised against advocates for climate justice.

We must, in this moment, reflect upon the inherent limitations of electoral politics, the absurdity and impotence of liberalism, and the violence endemic to any and every colonial ruling class. A thorough reading of Wallman’s comic should remind us that solidarity, collectivity and direct action are continuous imperatives—both within the workplace and beyond. One short yet significant chapter of Our Members be Unlimited is devoted to a single quote by the Marxist economist and revolutionary Harry Braverman. ‘My views about work are governed by nostalgia’, it concludes, ‘for an age that has not yet come into being.’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Matt Chun is an artist and writer based on Yuin land. His work spans drawing, essays, comics and picture books. mattchun.com.au

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