When union members are cheated, tricked, or ignored, our nationwide network of trained grievance officers helps members settle disputes with publishers and clients. A grievance officer can advise you in handling a dispute yourself or negotiate directly on your behalf.
Our grievance officers, all unpaid volunteers, handle dozens of cases each year.
To date, they have recovered over $1,700,000 for members. All the money recovered goes directly to the writers who earned it.
What Constitutes a Grievance?
A grievance is any work-related injustice done to you that you can’t resolve yourself and that the union should. Although the majority of grievances are about contract violations concerning money, they may involve disputes over obnoxious editorial procedures, bylines, misreported royalties, copyright ownership, unauthorized use of copyrighted material, and other offensive aspects of the ongoing wrestling match known as getting published.
Grievance officers have handled grievances against global publishing houses, newsletters and institutional house organs, and local and regional newspapers and magazines. We have also taken on literary agents, subsidy presses (including some scam artists), art presses, literary journals, collaborators, and work-for-hire employers.
How the Grievance Process Works
When you contact the Grievance and Contract Division (GCD) about a grievance, your problem will be reviewed; then, if appropriate, it will be assigned to a grievance officer. The grievance officer will ask you about the nature of your complaint and what you want as a resolution. He or she may also ask you to send your documentation, such as your contract, phone notes, and emails.
While some complaints can’t be pursued, there’s no problem that isn’t worth exploring before you decide what to do about it.
If your complaint is one that the union can pursue, the grievance officer will help you write a final demand letter to the publisher or client, backed up by the warning that you will file a grievance with the union if your demand isn’t met. Please do not write a final demand letter without the grievance officer’s advice.
In many cases, this demand letter is all it takes to persuade the other party to settle. But if it doesn’t resolve the dispute, the grievance officer will ask you to fill out a brief grievance form and return it.
The grievance officer will then contact the publisher or client. This first contact by the union often leads to a settlement. If it doesn’t, the grievance officer will begin the serious business of educating or wearing down the miscreant, whichever is appropriate.
Most grievances conclude quickly but some drag on for months. Grievance officers often consult with other officers to get their views on a winning strategy, but you have the final word on how hard to push the publisher and when to accept a resolution.
Actions a grievance officer may take on your behalf include emails, letters and
phone calls; but they may go well beyond that. Grievance officers have done informational picketing and made personal visits. They may publicize a stubborn offender by issuing a Writer Alert [link] on the union website. They’ve used resources generally available to everyone, such as social media and Better Business Bureaus, Chambers of Commerce, and law enforcement agencies. Grievance officers sometimes recommend that you file a lawsuit in Small Claims Courts or US District Court.
There are, however, limits to what a grievance officer can do:
- Grievance officers cannot offer legal advice.
- The NWU cannot sue on your behalf or represent you in court.
- Grievance officers do not make referrals to individual lawyers.
How to Prevent Grievances from Happening
In many cases, grievances can be prevented by due diligence. Here are some precautions that might help you avoid serious disputes with your publishers:
- Educate yourself about rights, publishing contracts, and good business practices at workshops and conferences offered by the NWU and other writers’ organizations, and read books and articles about the professional aspects of writing. We need sharp business skills to make it in this world.
- Use the union’s self-help publications as much as possible, especially the NWU Guide to Book Contracts and the model agent, collaboration, and work-for-hire contracts. Members who cannot download them may request them from email@example.com. These resources can help you to establish terms that dissuade publishers from treating you poorly.
- Check out publishers that have been unresponsive to writer grievances by looking at the NWU Writer Alerts.
- Check out prospective publishers, agents, and clients online. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for links to potential sources of information.
- Contact the GCD and ask for the help of a contract adviser when you have doubts about an agreement you’re negotiating.
- Check out publishers and other parties in advance of signing by contacting the GCD Coordinator at email@example.com and asking whether the NWU has any history on those parties.
- Get written confirmation of agreements and always document important events over the course of a project.
- An agreement does not have to be a written contract. If the editor refuses to offer you a contract or to accept yours, you can send him or her a letter of agreement to sign and return. Or you can send an email asking, “Did you say you wanted 3000 words? And the fee is $750? And it’s first serial rights only?” The return email will document your agreement.
- Send your invoice with your first submission. Note on the invoice the rights you’re selling and the terms.
- Register your published work with the US Copyright Office. Registration entitles you to stronger remedies if the work is infringed. You can register multiple articles at one time, making the $35 registration fee more palatable. Visit copyright.gov for forms and instructions.
- Don’t keep writing for a deadbeat, and don’t feel bad when things go wrong. Call your grievance officer and talk it over.
Examples of Successful Grievances
Below are examples of NWU members’ grievances that were successfully resolved through the assistance of an NWU grievance officer. Identifying names have been removed.
- A magazine publisher had delayed payments amounting to $70,000 to several hundred freelancers. Through a grievance officer, a mass grievance was filed. Resolution: All monies paid and procedures to ensure fair treatment instituted. Since the successful resolution of this matter, the publication has been scrupulous in meeting its obligations to freelance contributors.
- A member’s profile of a famous film director was to be published by a major metropolitan daily to coincide with the release of the director’s new movie. It was killed because the paper’s union went on strike just as the film was being released, and the paper refused to pay the writer the appropriate kill fee. Resolution: Under threat of the NWU publicizing its actions, the paper paid the kill fee.
- Foreign rights income a publisher owed to a member was not being credited to his account, payments and royalty statements were late, and there were other accounting irregularities. Resolution: Payment of almost $4,000 in foreign income was obtained, and the accounts were straightened out.
- A member learned that someone at his former publishing house was telling strangers, including the author’s prospective new publisher, that the member’s books had done poorly, when in fact they had done very well. Resolution: The former publisher’s president was persuaded to issue a directive against such ill-informed gossip.
- A magazine did not publish a member’s work because the publication was “overbooked.” Despite repeated requests over a period of years, the publisher refused to pay the writer kill fees for his work. Resolution: After two letters from an NWU grievance officer, the second containing meticulous records of the correspondence between the member and the magazine’s publisher and former editor, the member received his kill fees.
- A writer signed a contract with a book and electronic publisher giving the publisher all rights in all formats forever. A year after submission, there was no activity indicating that the book would be published. After discussion with a grievance officer, the writer decided she wanted all rights to the book back. Resolution: The publisher agreed to return the manuscript and all rights.
- A writer worked for years on a book for a university press. Her editor gave her suggestions for changes, which the writer made. But then the editor seemed to lose interest in the project. When asked where the project was, the editor sent a letter terminating the contract and asking for return of the advance monies paid. Resolution: The writer fought this with a grievance officer’s help, and the publisher agreed to accept repayment only if and when the writer sold the book to another publisher.
- A famous writer wrote an article, which was published, for a specialty magazine owned by a major publishing conglomerate. The editor, who was sympathetic, informed him that the publication was not paying its writers and the writer should consider taking action against the publisher. Resolution: Within days of a letter from a grievance officer, the writer received a check.
How to Request Grievance Assistance