Welcome special guests…
They say the first 30 years are the hardest! You won’t get an argument from the National Writers Union. It’s been quite a road we’ve travelled, from the Land of Ronald Reagan in 1981, to Zucotti Park and the spirit of Occupy in 2011. Reagan huffed and puffed and blew down the Berlin Wall and the old Soviet Union, which had already thoroughly rotted out from within, and unleashed an assault on working people and unions that continues to this day. With unions at their lowest level since the Great Depression and with 90% of the workforce non-union, here we are, still standing. No small accomplishment. That’s one reason we celebrate tonight.
By now, most of you are aware of Inkwell, a “Development House” used by Houghton Miflin Harcourt, one of the Big 3 textbook publishers in the US. Inkwell shut its doors in 2009, after not paying 60 freelancers for three months, owing them over $360,000 for a completed, translated Texas textbook project. On my second day on this job, we held a meeting with 17 workers in the union conference room. It was the start of a great relationship. We had confidence in those freelancers, and we earned their confidence for the union. Today we won a court settlement for the full amount. This is not the end of the fight. It will take a long time to collect. There is no justice under the “1%.” But no matter how much we end up collecting, we have put the Inkwell bosses out of business for good. They will not rip off anyone else. And we have a number of Inkwell workers in our union, and becoming more active and becoming leaders. That, as the commercial says, is priceless! Standing up with the Inkwell freelancers has made us a stronger union. And we celebrate that tonight as well.
But the truth is, things may get worse before they get better. We live in a world defined by growing wars, economic crises and austerity budgets. The bankers and billionaires are passing out bonus checks while more than 30 million workers remain unemployed and underemployed and every benefit fought for over the past 70 or 80 years is being stripped away. Working freelancers, some in this room, can’t collect any unemployment insurance and aren’t counted in the figures.
Among black, Latino and immigrant writers and workers, things are even worse. Today’s NY Times lead editorial reports that for black workers, unemployment rose to 15.5% even as the national figure dipped, and that tens of thousands of black workers have been hit first and hardest from the loss of over half-a-million public sector jobs since 2008.
Here, there are more black New Yorkers out of work than white, even though there are 1.5 million more white people in NYC. Immigrants and the poor are scapegoated with mass deportations and racist budget cuts, while Newt Gingrich campaigns for President on a platform of abolishing child labor laws and putting poor children to work as janitors in their schools. As UAW President Bob King said some months ago, in many ways these times mirror the developments in Hitler’s Germany.
Which reminds me, there is a recent poll that shows that a communist takeover of the United States is now more popular than Congress! I don’t wanna say I told you so, but that’s for another discussion.
Low pay and rising poverty directly affect our membership. Between 75-80% pay the minimum dues, and it’s a struggle for them to maintain their membership.
They say tough times produce tough people. We’re about to find out what we’re made of.
Our industry is in turmoil, caught between amazing technological advances, economic crisis, and the drive for maximum profits. Print newspaper and magazine circulation is dropping and many are either folding or going digital. Tens of thousands of journalists are losing their jobs. What’s more, the shift to digital journalism is driving down the pay scales of online journalists and creating a business model that rests on free labor.
This issue was crystalized when last February, Arianna Huffington sold the Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million, and landed a $4 million/year job as content director for AOL. She was able to establish a progressive brand and following based on hundreds of journalists who contributed their work for free in order to bring more traffic to this “progressive” site. These were professional journalists who worked on assignment, including our members. Arianna says that writers should be glad to write for free in exchange for free exposure. But it is the Huffington Post that profited from the “free exposure” brought by these writers. Huffington on TV talking about low paying jobs while she makes millions off of NO-paying jobs.
For seven months, we led a boycott against HuffPo with the Newspaper Guild. Many labor leaders, including the UAW, as well as hundreds of writers, journalists and bloggers, supported it. For now, the boycott has run its course and the campaign is moving to a new stage where we can discuss the future of the industry rather than the effectiveness of the boycott.
Our goal remains the organizing of hundreds of freelancers into the NWU and establishing an industry standard of fair pay for quality journalism at online publications. If we represent few writers our chances are slim to none. If we represent many, we have a much better shot.
This is a complicated fight. The vast majority of HP bloggers are willing to write for free, but they bring little if any traffic to HP. Our challenge is to organize online freelance journalists and involve them in the process of thinking this through.
In book publishing, the big publishers are consolidating while many book authors turn to self-publishing to try and make their mark. This year, ten million people read 100 million e-books, double the number for 2010. Yet publishers want to pay authors the same for e-books even though it costs them nothing in print, shipping, or storage costs.
And Google has digitized about 17 million books without the consent of a single author, ripping off the electronic rights of all authors even as a federal judge has thrown out the proposed Google Book settlement.
NWU, Science Fiction Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), opposed this settlement and played a significant role in getting it thrown out. Now we are continuing to talk and plan a joint strategy that truly represents the best interests of authors and readers and leads to a Digital Library of Congress, not Google. (SFWA in DC, ASJA here) And we celebrate that tonight!
NWU leaders met this Spring with the White House Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator to advocate prosecuting publishers who criminally violate writers’ copyrights and contract agreements. And the new head of the US Copyright office, Maria Pallante is a former NWU Executive Director, and we are in touch with her. And we celebrate that tonight.
Just last month, the Second Circuit Court threw out the $18 million class-action lawsuit settlement resulting from the Tasini v. New York Times case. Now there is no settlement, and we will have to meet with the UAW Legal Department to assess our options and have a full discussion in the union.
The turmoil and crises facing freelancers demands a strong union that fights for its members and for the whole working class. Our union, with all our limitations and weaknesses, starting with mine, is answering that call. And we celebrate that tonight!
There are no easy answers. It takes a lot of hard work to push that boulder up that hill, even a little bit. And it will take all of us pushing in the same direction; towards the next fight; towards another organizing opportunity and towards a bigger, stronger, more active, more integrated NWU.
It’s not just what we bring to freelance writers, but what they bring to us; their knowledge, their experience, their willingness to fight back. As we put the union in their hands and they make it their own, it will become something even more special.
If you’re not a member, join tonight. If you’ve lapsed, renew. If you’re current, make a commitment to sign up a couple of colleagues. Get active. Here’s to the next 30 years!
Photos by Thomas Good/NWU