The Guardian • Issue #2020


Our Members Be Unlimited – Sam Wallman

If the trade union movement is to have a future, then it is in today’s youth. There is not a great deal of material written in a form that is attractive to, or easily accessible for working class youth. The comic form, its lively presentation and the language of this work offer such an introduction to trade unions and class struggle.

Author Sam Wallman is a comics-journalist, cartoonist, and labour activist based in Narrm/Melbourne. He has worked as an organiser for the National Union of Workers, and prior to that was a delegate on the shop floor. His work has been widely used by trade unions and a range of other organisations around the world. It has also been published by the Guardian (UK), the New York Times, the ABC, and SBS. He has also received a number of awards for his long-form comics-journalism.

The title of the book is the first rule of the first working-class political organisation in Britain and underlies the importance of organising all workers and building the trade union movement. The illustrations reflect the text in a lively manner. “ […] it was their work that both constructed the wheels of society and also made those wheels turn.” The accompanying illustration shows workers constructing and pushing wheels uphill.

The first chapter is a brief historical overview of the trade union movement, setting and place some basic facts about capitalism. “There is nothing modern about cooperation. And resistance to exploitation is as old as exploitation itself.” Unionism and opposition to the powers that be was illegal under the Combination Acts. In response to the persecution, secret societies and other organisations were built on mutual trust. They formed to demand pay rises, reduced working hours, and safe work places.

Wallman describes his personal experiences of working as a picker in an Amazon warehouse where the boss tells workers their job is to move quickly – “always moving at Amazon pace,” as they scan orders into trolleys. They start their shift with warm up exercises because the work is so physical and movements so repetitive.

“When I work where does my body end & the equipment begin? Is the cart I push an extension of my body?” It’s rush, rush, rush, walking upwards of thirty kilometres a day under a hot tin roof wearing steel cap boots.

Wallman is carrying a scanner gun with a countdown timer telling him how long he has left to scan the next item. “Sometimes it gives me 5 seconds for an item aisles away.” Management sends messages such as: “your rate is down – pls try harder” or “everyone needs to stay on 3 hrs longer.” Toilets, located at one end of the warehouse near the managers’ area, can take five or more minutes to walk there while the time continues to tick down.

The workers joke about Amazon selling nappies. After reading about Amazon workers in the US Wallman straps a “reusable urine bag” to the inside of his leg! The language is colourful: “getting used to pissing while walking is tricky.”

The message of alienation, persecution and exploitation is carried graphically in words and illustrations. Workers are and feel expendable. They start talking to each other. “We’ve got each other. And the union?” There are acts of solidarity.

The next chapter uses examples from mythology, the animal kingdom, and trade unions as examples of the power of unity and solidarity compared with the powerlessness of the individual. “So too do workers voluntarily contribute a sliver of their income and energy towards collectivising, & establishing a formal organisation that can accomplish more than any one person could ever hope or imagine.”

The concept of unity is then developed with more history including the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the industrial revolution, the Suffragist movement, and growth of unions and strike actions. At the same time Wallman provides examples of union-busting tactics of capitalists and the heavy penalties faced by workers and unions for industrial action. The book also notes the legacy of the communist-led green bans movement where union-led, blue-collar workers stepped outside industrial activism.

The struggle of women is not overlooked. The description of women in Iceland in the 1970s who withdrew their paid and unpaid labour is powerful and brought a smile to my lips. The slogan was: “When women stop, everything stops.” And it did. The women were able to highlight how care is undervalued by capitalism.

The book has so many interesting facts and historical examples that make important points about capitalism and communists without ramming them down people’s throats. These include the appalling working conditions and loss of life of garment workers in Bangladesh and their strike actions.

“Simply stopping work is probably the most powerful single action we can take. It is possible that bosses & governments know this better than workers do.”

Contemporary issues such as the decline in formally organised collective activism and rise in precarious forms of employment are covered and attributed to the success of bosses’ tactics.

In defining trade unions, Wallman raises the question of “unions transitioning to elected governmental councils, or soviets, & achieving true hegemony and dominance.” Where union leaderships are corrupt or forgotten how to fight, “we would have to be as ready to fight the union leadership as the bosses.”

The concept of workplace democracy and workers’ control is raised. The book returns to Amazon and the issue of automation and the threat it poses to workers, depending on how it is used. Workers program the robots. “We produce everything.”

The book is written in the first person with the various cartoon characters including Wallman talking to the reader in snappy, everyday language. It ends with an entertaining appendix of more than fifty labour definitions.

Terms such as scab, grub, snitch, picket line, secondary boycotts, rank and file, trot-bot, closed shop hammer & sickle, internationalism, and general strike are amongst those covered. The definitions and illustrations that carry them make important points at the same time as being humorous and poignant. They are an education in themselves.

To conclude with a personal confession; I am not a fan of comics, but this book was so entertaining that I sat and read it from cover to cover in one sitting. I found it interesting, stimulating and educational and can strongly recommend it to the young and not so young as both an introduction to trade unionism and as a primer for those with trade union experience such as myself.

Thank you Sam for a great text and your incredible illustrations.

Our Members Be Unlimited
By Sam Wallman
Published by Scribe 253 pages

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