Welcome to tonight’s celebration of the National Writers Union’s 30th Anniversary. I’m Susan Davis and I’ll be your host for this evening’s program.
I joined the union in 1987 to celebrate finishing the first draft of a novel; this year I finally self-published it. Over the years, I’ve developed as a writer, publishing four non-fiction books and hundreds of articles, and along the way I became an NWU activist. At present I’m co-chair of the New York Chapter with Louis Reyes Rivera, whom you will hear later in the program; I’m the National Contract Advisor in the Grievance and Contract Division; and I’m co-chair of the Book Division. Like all our presenters, I’ve been a social justice activist — for forever.
We’re here to celebrate the union’s many accomplishments over the past 30 years and to take a look ahead. That’s why we chose “Writing the Future” as this evening’s theme. After I summarize our history, President Larry Goldbetter will look to the future. The following highlights are from an extensive NWU history compiled by longtime Boston member and national officer Barbara Beckwith.
The idea for the National Writers Union emerged in 1981 at workshop entitled “Why a Union? at the Writers Congress called by The Nation magazine in NYC. By 1983 an official charter was adopted that set up goals of defending freelance writers’ rights in all genres and working to promote their economic interests. A national office was set up in NYC based on democratic principles, with chapters having autonomy in local affairs. The NWU quickly jumped into action, setting up an agreement with Mother Jones that spelled out fair treatment for writers. That was followed over the years with agreements at such publications as the Village Voice, Ms., Columbia Journalism Review, New Age, L.A. Weekly, and Ploughshares.
The union won its first group grievance in 1984 when Rebel magazine agreed to pay $50,000 to writers. That was followed in 1987 by a $53,000 win at Her New York. Unfortunately, members handling grievances didn’t begin keeping official records of winnings until 1991, so the current total is a tad under $1.5 million. But that’s still impressive. Over the years, the Grievance & Contract Division has become one of the NWU’s primary resources, consistently attracting new members month after month. GCD members are not lawyers, but we are all extensively trained and mentored so we can advise on all types of contracts, from academic to journalism, as well as on agent and collaboration agreements, and handle the full range of grievances,
The NWU has taken the lead many times when defending copyright and writers’ right to freedom of expression, and we’ve attacked many forms of censorship. For instance, in 1994 we spoke out for member Leslie Feinberg, who was disinvited as a college commencement speaker for being transgender. Just this year we protested anti-ethnic studies legislation in Arizona that effectively bans Rodolfo Acuna’s widely used textbook, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. And over the years we have consistently worked to build diversity in the union, including sensitivity for people with disabilities along with racial and gender issues. For instance, in 1989 the NWU issued a report showing that writers of color in the U.S. are not proportionately represented in the publishing industry and we called for parity.
After a rigorous process of interviewing and assessing various national unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the NWU chose to join the United Auto Workers in 1991 because of “its progressive history and commitment to organizing non-traditional workers like lawyers and grad students.” At the UAW convention the same year, the NWU, now known as UAW Local 1981, proposed, at the insistence of our lesbian and gay members, that the anti-discrimination clause in the UAW constitution be amended to include sexual orientation. It passed overwhelmingly. Over the ensuing years, the UAW has provided ample financial resources needed to hire organizers, do research, and publish reports and books. Our affiliation became official in 2003.
In 1994 electronic publishing was just catching fire. When then-president Jonathan Tasini and other members noted that their work was being posted on the Web without their permission or additional payment, they asked the UAW for help in pursuing a legal case against media moguls like The NY Times and Time Inc. And the UAW came through, helping to fund and fight a legal suit that set a precedent in 2001 when the Supreme Court ruled in our favor: The court stated that writers must receive separate payment for each medium their work appears in. However, publishers have gotten around that by issuing all-rights contracts. But the principle stands, and we’re now fighting for it in relation to e-book royalties.
Continuing our tradition of being the first writers’ group to oppose flagrant abuses of new technology, the NWU in 2009 opposed a private settlement among Google, the Authors Guild and the American Publishers Association, known as the Google Book Settlement. Two other writers’ groups soon joined us in protest, and we continue to work with them today. I believe representatives of the American Society of Journalists and Authors are with us this evening. And, by the way, earlier this year the court ruled against the Google Book Settlement.
Through the past 30 years the union has seen many ups and downs, ebbs and flows in keeping with radical changes in the publishing marketplace. We offered a Job Bank between 1996 and 2002 before outsourcing decimated the business and technical writing industry and Mozilla, Craigslist and Media Bistro became dominant in the employment market. We offered national health and media perils insurance before providers cancelled policies because they couldn’t make enough profit. Now we offer health insurance on a state-by-state basis. We offered an Agents Database until such information became easily accessible on the web.
But what does the NWU do best? We assess the current marketplace for writers in every genre and take action to promote writers’ best interests. We strive to take vanguard positions on everything from tax law to orphan works or web-based content farms that pay a penny a word or, in the case of the Huffington Post, zip.