Reviewed: Our Members Be Unlimited, Sam Wallman, Scribe
On 1st April 2022, a ground-breaking election victory occurred in the United States: Amazon’s first-ever union was created since its 28-year history in the country, despite the millions spent by the company trying to sway the vote. Fittingly, comics-journalist, cartoonist and union organiser Sam Wallman has also just published Our Members Be Unlimited, a comic book documenting his year-long experience of working in an Amazon warehouse in Melbourne, as well as covering the long history of unionism, starting from the very first working-class political organisation in Britain in the nineteenth century, to union and labour experiences all over the world. The illustrations, mainly in black, orange, red and blue colours, with thick lines and blocks of colour that make them look like lino or woodcut, give a sense of solidity to the book.
The title is taken from the first rule and slogan of the early working-class labour movement in Britain: ‘that the number of our members be unlimited’. Wallman touts this as being an example of how this was ‘… wildly inclusive—when most people in England could not even vote.’ He doesn’t mention, however, that in this condensed version of union history, the British labour movement was at various times plagued by racial prejudice, imperialism and a pro-Empire stance, not to mention the gender divide. This white-washed romanticisation of union history doesn’t do anyone any favours.
Alongside a summarised history of capitalism and industrialisation, the bulk of the book consists of case studies from various eras and geographical locations. There is mention of a dock workers strike in 70s San Francisco against apartheid in South Africa, the New Zealand government banning strikes in the late 80s, to the first industrial dispute in space. One notable case occurred in 2015, when Victorian firefighters utilised an ingenious form of industrial action by writing emails only in capital letters. But these case studies are brief, coming across as piecemeal and random—besides placing them together in a book, they appear decontextualised, with hardly any references to follow up on should a reader want to learn more.
In trying to give a birds’ eye view of unionism there is perhaps an inevitable flattening out, a resulting lack of preciseness and nuance. In one section about Chinese workers, British journalist Paul Mason is quoted as saying: ‘Shenzhen’s workers are to global capitalism what Manchester’s workers were 200 years ago.’ This seems oddly conflating and ethnocentric: an account of progressive modernity where everything that occurs has its historical touchpoint in the west regardless of the different dynamics and context.
As such it appears that the real focus of Wallman’s book is on promoting collectivism and the benefits of unionism, and less interested in the workers themselves. This may be a worthy goal, but in this instance has the unfortunate side effect of erasing a sense of the workers; of their struggles, desires and viewpoints, relegating them to a bit part in a larger story. The misstep comes across most clearly in a retelling of the tragedy that occurred at the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where over a thousand garment workers perished in a fire; the incident gets reduced to what feels like the equivalent of a soundbite, appended with quotes from Western industrial organisers or journalists. Perhaps this book would have benefited from fewer but more detailed and careful case studies, or if it sought to provide more rigorous historical contexts.
The most interesting chapter in the book is when Wallman goes to work as a picker in an Amazon warehouse in Melbourne. He documents his experience there and gives us an insight into the working conditions in Amazon—both the absurdity and brutality of it. The conditions are as appalling as we imagine them to be and provides a window into that which many would not see otherwise (‘Customer obsessions is a must’, says a sign inside the warehouse). Wallman states that ‘my main motivation getting this job was because I wanted to help my union take root in a hostile company.’ He laments the high turnover of workers as one of the reasons why people don’t sign up to the union he tries to start there; the irony escapes him however, as he does his own parachuting in and out of Amazon, beginning employment there to instigate a union and leaving a year later.
As I read Our Members Be Unlimited, I found myself asking the question: what is the purpose of a book like this? Who is the intended audience? Is it for people new to the principles of collectivism? Is it meant to galvanise people to join a union?
We’ve learnt from the recent Amazon union victory, and in so many other instances across the globe, how worker solidarity and connection can create change. There is no doubt that collective action has been powerfully effective, and that it has allowed workers and their interests to prevail over long and difficult odds. What is perhaps needed in books like these—which is part documentation and part witness—is a more critical, detailed and nuanced history, as well as hearing directly more from the workers themselves: their specific experiences, their at once unique and collective struggles. This may serve to be a more convincing call to action.