Our Members Be Unlimited: the importance of unionism

Melbourne-based cartoon journalist and unionist, Sam Wallman, reinvigorates unionist spirit in his accessible history of workers unions.

Cover of Our Members Be Unlimited. Scribe Publications

The 254-page graphic novel is both a testament to Wallman’s artistry and insightful storytelling capacity.

Wallman sketches the role of unionism, both historically and currently, through weaving personal experience, political theory and examples of workers’ collective action taken both at home and abroad.

Readers learn of the Disney cartoonists’ 1941 strike and the industrial action taken by Australian firefighters in 2015 which saw them write emails entirely in capital letters. Unionism is presented to be an innovative force that can be applied to any workplace by any group of individuals who seek to uphold their rights.

Our Members Be Unlimited gives readers hope that any workplace can be unionised. Wallman bravely recalls his abysmal experience as a pick packer in an Amazon warehouse. Shortened breaks, extra hours, and extreme heat bore further physical and mental burdens on Wallman and his co-workers.

Despite the exploitative workplace, Wallman recognised the seeds of solidarity were apparent among his co-workers. Wallman illustrates how casual workers would help each other beat repetitive working activities by taking on each other’s workload and joking around. Our Members Be Unlimited highlights how solidarity is human nature.

Wallman explores his journey in unionising the Amazon workplace against the constant suppression of and fearmongering of union members. For example, one worker illustrated in Our Members be Unlimited explains the paranoia of losing their job because of union involvement as a barrier to participating in unionism.

Nevertheless, Wallman depicts the act of unionism as a meaningful sport that’s “something you can sink your teeth into.” After one year at Amazon, Wallman reflects on how union organising and media pressure led to the addition of 500 secure jobs for Amazon warehouse workers.

Readers are shown how, like Wallman’s characters, we too can make our workplaces safer and more just if we band together with our peers. Ordinary workers have the power to bring the ghost of unionism’s past back to life.

“Precisely because of their success, the wins of eras past become invisible to us,” Wallman writes.

The novel reminds us that unions are responsible for what we now regard as the pillars of working society. Without unionism taken-for-granted benefits such as the eight-hour working day, the weekend, sick leave, or workplace safety would not exist.

Importantly, Wallman does not shy away from taboo topics, such as the overwhelming masculinity of traditional unionism and some unions’ gradual shift from their primary goals.

“It’s not as if every unionist should defend every single form of unionism, or every union that’s existed,” Wallman states.

Rather it is the idea of unionism, as a movement wherein membership is unlimited, that should be aspired for.

Our Members Be Unlimited carefully balances nostalgia for the golden age of unionism with the present. Wallman reiterates that the future revitalisation of Australian unionism must be collective, well-planned, and principled.

Through both its striking art and nuanced commentary, Wallman’s Our Members Be Unlimited is a staple reading for everyone. Because after all, “The strangest, most special thing about unions is that they have ever even managed to exist at all."