“I hope no one draws from this the conclusion that my views are shaped by nostalgia for an age that cannot be recaptured,” Harry Braverman, one of the twentieth century’s leading Marxist political economists, once described the inspiration behind his life’s work. “Rather, my views about work are governed by nostalgia for an age that has not yet come into being.”
It’s a message that would hopefully sound familiar to the audience of trade unionists, activists, and socialists who turned out for the recent launch of Our Members Be Unlimited, a new long-form comic book by radical cartoonist and journalist Sam Wallman.
The launch took place at Victoria’s Trades Hall in Melbourne, the oldest still-functioning union building in the world. Among the speakers were leftist writer Jeff Sparrow and Elizabeth Lim, a union delegate who had recently participated in a wildcat strike. They both chose Braverman’s words to describe Our Members — and not just because Wallman dedicates a chapter to him. By connecting the history of working-class solidarity with the everyday realities of work and organizing, Wallman’s book both reflects and encourages trade unionism today. Given decades of declining wages and union density, it’s an urgent message.
The first rule of the first working-class political organization formed in Britain was: “that the number of our members be unlimited.” From where we sit, it’s hard to see just how radical this notion was. Because of their success, the wins of eras past become invisible to us.
This quote from the first few pages of Our Members Be Unlimited refers to the 1792 rules of the London Corresponding Society, a forerunner to the Chartist movement and the first modern unions. It gives you a sense of the in-depth research behind the book, as well as the natural, contemporary voice in which it’s written.
Sam Wallman’s work is informed by his experiences building a union while working as a picker in an Amazon warehouse in Melbourne. The vast imaginative scope of Wallman’s imagery casts in sharp relief the dehumanization of Amazon’s dictatorial regime of workplace discipline. At the same time, his illustrations capture the personality, idiosyncrasy, and creativity of his coworkers while also focusing on the moments of hope that point to an alternative. Animals, plants, and even galaxies combine to develop a narrative centered on the spirit of collectivism that is essential to build if we are to battle for a better world.
In one scene at Amazon, for example, Sam and his friend Abdulla connect over a conversation about the made-up mind games they both use to deal with the monotony of the work. Abdulla imagines he is an Ancient Greek god with superpowers battling it out over the warehouse.
At the same time, Our Members doesn’t shy away from criticizing conservative forms of unionism or the failures that have led to decades of declining union membership and worker power. Corrupt union bureaucracies come in for as much criticism as union-busting bosses. And Wallman doesn’t brush away the real barriers that can dissuade people from joining the union, like feeling powerless or fearing reprisals.
Our Members also weaves history into the present in an attempt to open up the possibility of better futures. For example, Wallman depicts the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, which saw 300,000 London workers demonstrate against fascism in solidarity with their Jewish coworkers and neighbors. He links this with other struggles, like the “green bans” movement in Australia that saw workers walk off the job to protect sites of significant environmental and social history. It’s an approach that preserves the memory of our side’s victories and builds them into a worldview.
Sam Wallman’s perspective is born of his deep involvement in the Left and a decade spent alongside other radical artists producing art in support of left-wing and trade union campaigns. His work never patronizes you or forces an opinion on you; he speaks to his audience as equals.
No artwork or book has the same power as rank-and-file workplace organizing. But if it reaches a wide enough audience, the book might help amplify the emerging wave of union organization, from US Amazon warehouse workers to cleaners and health care workers in Australia. Our Members Be Unlimited helps us realize that, when we build union solidarity in the workplace, our efforts go beyond wages and conditions — rekindling the old spirit of collectivism is how we build a better future for humanity.