1st November, 2023

In conversation with BOTY shortlisted author Sam Wallman

Our Members Be Unlimited by Sam Wallman is an immense achievement. Both a history of the union moment and a personal memoir of Wallman’s own experience of working as a picker at an Amazon warehouse, the personal is political and the political is intensely felt and personal. The graphic medium allows for dense information to be told in an accessible way, while images of the body speak directly to the body of the reader, we recognise the burden of exploitation as an embodied reality. Timely, but also a book that will remain relevant, sadly, for a long time, this important book could play a role in helping younger generations engage with what it means to collectivise and unionise and make informed choices about navigating a lifetime of labour; this book should be considered for secondary curriculums.

—BOTY 2023 judging panel

We were lucky enough to chat with Sam about Our Members Be Unlimited, one of the shortlisted titles for the 2023 SPN Book of the Year Award. The award ceremony will take place on 24 November and the winner will be announced on the night.

To see the full shortlist, click here.

To book a ticket to the BOTY award ceremony, click here. All the shortlisted books will be available for purchase at the Independent Publishing Conference through our conference bookseller, Readings. They can also be ordered through the Readings website.

Q. Being a comic, the book is visually stunning. The text and graphics weave in and out of each other in really interesting ways. How do you approach the blank page, and does text or graphics come first?

Ideally the text and the imagery are equally weighted, you can’t have one without the other, but generally I do tend to start with the script. The drawings are there to expand on and add some meat to the words. Sometimes you realise that the drawings are doing all of the heavy lifting though, so you can cut out the text completely. For instance there’s no need to include text describing “she walked through the door”, if that’s what the drawing is showing. The drawings also allow for some breathing space, and can offer the work a bit more of a poetic or abstract kind of vibe. The drawings and the words are equally important.

Q. The book discusses things such as the industrial revolution and, more recently, the concept of fully-automated warehouses. My thoughts go immediately to AI as another example of technology replacing human jobs. As a writer and artist, do you feel your work is threatened by the future of AI? 

Yes I do feel like at least half of the art I produce could be done by AI very soon, if not already. I don’t think it could produce the more narrative-based stuff that I do at this stage, but the more simple, single image work, for sure. Though art is not just about the visuals – anyone working with AI will need to be able to articulate their concepts and symbolism clearly and creatively enough if they want quality work out of the technology. There are skillsets involved that aren’t just about rendering the image. 

My day job is working at the docks, and that work is also very much under active threat from automation. Artists are not alone in this. Artists just seem to get more attention, for whatever reason. We need structural, broad-based solutions though, because such huge swathes of the workforce are effected by this stuff. It was great to see the recent Hollywood strikes involve concrete, material demands related to automation and AI, they provided us with some signposts for sure.

Q. You talk about the recent decline in union involvement from workers. What do you think may be responsible for this?

As I discuss in the book, I think this is partly because unions have been so successful already! A lot of workers have become complacent, coasting on the coat tails of previous wins, not realising that without continuing the fight, all of our wages and conditions will go backwards. Another problem is that large sections of the union movement are reluctant to fight – strikes are down 97% since the 1970s – partly because of Australia having more restrictions on striking than any other OECD nation. Our unions are also too close to the Labor Party, in my opinion, too reliant, hoping they will fix our problems from on high, which is not going to happen.

Q. The book shows many examples of collective action taken by workers across different industries and the world. What do you think positive change looks like for the Australian publishing industry?

Unionism is about democratising our workplaces. Most businesses in publishing, like every other industry, are run in a borderline totalitarian fashion, even if they have a veneer of progressivism laid over the top. These buisnesses are run in a very top-down way. Staff across the sector know the industry inside out, and the industry would benefit from these workers being more included in decision making. Also, everyone I know that works in publishing is extremely tired, and overworked. This is partly because their love and care for books and publishing gets weaponised and used against them – ‘you’re lucky to work in this industry, you should be grateful’ and so on. You can care about the industry and still demand better wages and conditions, and more of a say in the day to day running of things.

Q. In the final chapter, the characters discuss how the hardest and most important step towards more positive work environments is ‘creating a positive collection out of the working class itself’. How do you think we can best achieve this?

I think we all have a role to play in this. We all have to work, to sell our labour. Our jobs put us in contact with people from all walks of life, people we might not come to know otherwise. If we can meet our work-mates where they are at, organise around issues that effect us all, and transform our workplaces into more egalitarian, democratic, anti-racist spaces, then I think we can challenge a lot of the things in the world that break our hearts.

Sam Wallman is a comics journalist and cartoonist based in Melbourne, Australia. His drawings have been published in The GuardianThe New York TimesThe Age, the ABC, and SBS.

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