Unionism has been declining for three decades in Australia. Today trade union membership is about 14 per cent of all Australian workers, having peaked in the 1970s. Young workers are less likely to be union members now than older ones. Even so, unions still play a vital role in the Australian workplace, such as successfully winning a recent minimum wage guarantee for workers picking produce.
Sam Wallman’s comic book Our Members Be Unlimited acts as an enlivening reminder of the power of unions in agitating for better workplace conditions for our increasingly casualised workforce. It’s an attempt to educate young, sometimes disenfranchised, workers about the potential power of collective action.
As a treatise on collective action throughout history and its relevance today, Wallman’s comic is anchored by the story of his time working at Amazon’s first Australian fulfilment centre. A kind of Orwellian experience ensues, with endless worker surveillance, strong anti-union sentiment and punishing conditions that see this disposable labour force worn down and usually discarded.
With vivid illustrations and Wallman’s trademark irony, Our Members Be Unlimited argues that people collectively advocating for their needs and aspirations can always achieve better outcomes. Unions are just one available way to do so. The book’s drawings embrace clever symbolism and wry humour such as “ghosts” of unions past offering us advice, and broken food delivery backpacks nodding to fragile gig work to convey the erasure of unionism and the precarity of today’s economy.
Importantly, he also acknowledges that those sitting at the sidelines of the workforce should be involved too. The employed as well as the unemployed, underemployed and gig workers need to “recognise each other as one and the same”, with the shared aims of good pay and job security.
Some brilliant imagery shows readers that lasting change isn’t always created by strikes and stand-offs. Simple but collective worker actions such as refusing overtime work, adopting a company’s strict safety measures or slowdowns are just some of the ways workers have successfully gained stronger protections and enacted change at their workplace. There’s even a helpful glossary at the end to remind readers Wallman’s project is as much a call to action as a practical resource.
“The strangest, most special thing about unions is that they ever even managed to exist at all,” Wallman writes. Our Members Be Unlimited is an inspired, energising depiction of the power of collective union action. As a sort of manifesto to young or disengaged workers, it makes for stirring and impassioned reading.
Scribe Publications, 256pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Our Members Be Unlimited: A comic about workers and their unions, Sam Wallman".
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