Crisis in the National Writers UnionAfter long pondering and some anguish, I'm going to support the insurgent ticket headed by Jerry Colby -- which is a way of voting against the direction our union has been heading, and maybe a vote for creating a different sort of organization all together.
I was present at the original National Writers Congress in 1981, where the NWU was born. I've been a member for most of the years since, and at times have taken an active leadership role, as a steering committee member in the New York local and, a year ago, as Eastern Regional Vice President. I have appreciated the generous comradeship, and have benefited from services including book contract advising and, very recently, advice on a contract with an on-line publication. These services were offered by volunteers, unpaid for time consuming, attentive help.
I am also a member of the Authors Guild, which provides my web hosting and domain name registration, sponsors seminars on book agenting, and offers legal advice on book and agent contracts. And, when neither the NWU nor the Authors Guild gave me satisfactory access to health insurance, I also joined the Editorial Freelancers Association, which does. (Honestly, that was my only motivation for joining EFA.) If I continue doing more journalism, I may want to join the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA).
The NWU, though, has been trying to provide services plus political lobbying (on copyright law and other writerly issues). For that it needs a paid staff, more than it has at present. And to pay them it needs money, which it has been getting mainly from the much larger union we affiliated with a few years ago, the United Auto Workers. Conflicts over what sort of organization we were going to be, plus the generally worsening times for freelance writers (a lot of publications have sunk without a bubble, remaining ones are paying less than they used to), have driven down membership, so there are fewer people available to meet growing financial demands. And the UAW was weary of bankrolling such an obstreperous, nonproductive (in membership-growth terms) outfit, which it viewed as one of its locals. (We, since our founding, had always thought of ourselves as the "national" union, and our branches in New York, the Bay Area, Chicago, Boston, Twin Cities, etc., "locals"; for the UAW, they are "chapters," and the entire NWU is one "local.") Now, to resolve the budget crisis and quell the obstreperousness, the delegates at our last Delegates Assembly voted to raise dues hugely (to $160 per year) and fold our union completely into the UAW structure.
ASJA dues are $195 -- probably worth it for professional journalists, given ASJA's many services. AG dues are a mere $90 a year, and I'm saving more than that (as compared to my old Earthlink account) by using their very economical web hosting services. So the new NWU dues may not be outrageous, if the NWU ends up providing comparably valuable services -- but what's the point? Authors can join one of the other organizations for those.
Professional, published writers do not need another organization to do what the AG and ASJA do well. What I and other writers need is an organization that can do what those organizations can never do as well as the NWU as I've known it throughout the years, which is to foment a lot of member-to-member interaction for moral support, industry scuttlebutt, collective action. So I think the current leadership is taking us in the wrong direction.
I wish them well. I hope that, if incumbent president Marybeth Menaker (whom I like personally and respect professionally) and her slate win this election, they will be able to accomplish some of what they promise. But I fear that even if they do, the old spirit of solidarity among writers that has been what has held us together over the years will further dissipate. After all, there is no pressing economic reason for anyone to join the NWU -- we don't have a closed shop with any publication. We are in the NWU because it feels good to be here. I don't think it will feel as good as the leadership becomes less responsive to the members and more anxious to stay in line with the much larger industrial union which, naturally, has other priorities.
So that's where I come down: I'm voting for Gerard Colby and the entire "Working4Writers" slate. Maybe we can renew the good feeling and disinterested solidarity that I seem to remember from years back -- it wasn't always a reality, but it was always a realistic aspiration.
National Writers Union
American Association of Journalists and Authors
The Authors Guild
United Auto Workers