The State of Our Union

State of the Union: NWU is doing well, with many weaknesses and limited capacity. As of this writing we have just over 1,000 current members, which fluctuates up to 1200. We are holding our own, numbers wise, but we are growing stronger internally, which is the key, and the prerequisite for growing. Today, the union is in many more very capable hands and working more collectively. 

The key to putting the union in more hands has been the work of FSP, our digital media division, and the progress made integrating that work, energy and leadership into the wider NWU. To this end, veteran and newer members attended the IFJ World Congress and held a panel at the NABJ-LA conference. The Generative AI working group brought veteran and newer members together and reached out to many others in producing our platform and principles document. The copyright work is continuing in that path. 

The four organizers hired for stipend positions all came to NWU through FSP and are giving leadership to the whole union, including attending ExCom meetings. Hopefully, this will continue with the coming national elections. The solidarity work around Gaza has involved more than a dozen members, mostly young people who came to NWU through FSP. You may remember that the UAW ordered us to stop organizing the FSP, claiming we were in violation of antitrust laws. Instead, we left the UAW.  

Hard Times:  We are a relatively small, independent union organizing in a vast “open shop” of freelance workers, without the protections or benefits of U.S. labor law. We are in a very volatile industry and our members are a driving force among the precariat. 

This past year has been bloody in the media and publishing industries. According to Poynter, more than 20,000 jobs were lost in the media industry in 2023, over 2,600 of them in the news sector, which is more than in each of the previous two years. Lamenting the loss of Pitchfork, NYTimes columnist Ezra Klein summed up the current situation:

“Sports Illustrated just laid off most of its staff. BuzzFeed News is gone. HuffPost has shrunk. Jezebel was shut down (then partly resurrected). Vice is on life support. Popular Science is done. U.S. News & World Report shuttered its magazine and is basically a college ranking service now. Old Gawker is gone and so too is New Gawker. FiveThirtyEight sold to ABC News and then had its staff and ambitions slashed. Grid News was bought out by The Messenger, which is now reportedly “out of money.” Fusion failed. Vox Media — my former home, where I co-founded, and a place I love — is doing much better than most but has seen huge layoffs over the past few years.

“Nor is it just digital journalism suffering. More than 350 newspapers failed in the first few years of the pandemic. That was the same pace at which newspapers were failing before the pandemic: a rate of two closures or so per week. Alabama’s three largest newspapers have ceased printing. Southern California’s oldest paper went out of business. The McClatchy chain filed for bankruptcy. Storied newspapers like The Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Dallas Morning News have been racked by layoffs, forced to become shadows of what they once were. What’s failing here isn’t a particular editorial strategy. It’s that the middle is collapsing in journalism.”

Over the past decade, several factors have contributed to the attacks on journalism and media workers, including the transition to digital media, the loss of ad revenue to print media, Big Tech using published news and not paying for it, and hedge funds taking over the five largest newspaper chains, only to gut and trash hundreds of local newspapers. In the just published book, “Hedged: How Private Investment Funds Helped Destroy American Newspapers and Undermine Democracy,” Margot Susca writes,

“I don’t wish to minimize the impact of the internet transition or the loss of revenue as factors upending the industry. But newspaper companies beholden to private investment funds and the financial industry itself should get more of the blame over what has transpired in these years. By December 2004 industry analysts had pushed consolidation as a strategy as retail ad revenue dropped. Nearly five years later, David Simon, the Baltimore newspaperman turned television writer, testified before a US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the future of journalism: ‘In short, my industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place.’” 

Now add the rise of AI to this picture, and the future is even more precarious for all those we aspire to represent. The NWU Platform and Principles for AI is an important contribution to this discussion, in the US and internationally, and one of the bright spots in the state of the union.

The increased threats to media workers are being met with growing resistance, with the WGA’s 5-month strike this past year being the first and largest labor action specifically targeting the use of AI.  That strike stands out as the workers’ response, in contrast to the many lawsuits that have been filed, and the strike won more gains for more workers.  Meanwhile, those lawsuits could possibly drag on for years, benefiting few if any freelance workers. 

TNG-CWA led a successful strike at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and has been on strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for over a year. There were one day strikes at The New York Times at the end of 2022 and at the Los Angeles Times one week ago, with similar job actions at many publications. We have participated in a number of these and always urge our members and all freelancers to honor the real and virtual picket lines. Many media workers appear to be in a fighting mood, and that is also reflected in our Digital Media membership, as well as in the Solidarity work in response to the war in Gaza and in supporting the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate.

Strengths and Weaknesses

You’re going to hear and receive written reports on some of the very good work that the union has been involved in over the past year, which will power us into the spring elections and the big Delegate Assembly this summer/fall. This report will try to address some of the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and obstacles that we face.

Staff: For a decade we functioned with one full-time officer (President), one p/t office staff (Jeanise), three officers on very small stipends (Treasurer and two VPs) as well as small stipends for our Grievance and Contract officers.  We were stuck in a 10-year lease at $4k/month and sending another $4K to the UAW, getting little return on our investment. We went through some dire cost cutting to stay afloat, moved when our lease expired in 2021, and during the pandemic we were able to build up the treasury with two years of no travel expenses and exiting the UAW in 2020. 

The old capitalist saying, “You get what you pay for,” kind of describes the limits we were operating under, relying mainly on volunteer labor. This past year we invested in putting more organizers on stipends (2 FSP co-chairs and an organizer at $3k/month) and hired a comms manager ($4k/month). 

At the end of 2023, we were paying about $120k/year on 8 stipends. Organizer Megan McRobert is leaving us, having taken the job as Executive Director for an independent nurses’ union in Rochester, NY (their gain, our loss). And we have many urgent needs. 

We are going through a rebrand and investing in a new website and possibly a new database, (which has been very problematic), and we want to get off PayPal, which is very expensive.  We have not had anyone assigned to monitor the website and clean up the database for years. We also are engaged in more organizing projects (literary translators and audio freelancers) while trying to expand the organizing work at publications where we have agreements (UAs). 

While we can’t solve this on Saturday, we should be thinking about how we can reshape our staffing to possibly have a full-time office position with expanded responsibilities for the website, database and bookkeeping, and a full-time organizer position. These are expensive propositions, with the union paying employer taxes and health insurance in addition to salaries, more than $100k each. To use another old saying, “putting our money where our mouth is.” Is this something to shoot for? How can we afford it??

Affiliation: One thing that could increase our capacity would be affiliating with a larger union that will help us financially and organizationally. Unfortunately, the TNG-CWA did not work out.  While facing hundreds of layoffs around the country, they have been focused on organizing job actions, filing ULPs, and facing political challenges internally, including around the war in Gaza.

So, the search continues. Any affiliation will have to result in some material support once we start paying per caps again. This could take many forms, from providing office and meeting space to supporting the cost of office staff or an organizer, legal and legislative support, etc. We are not affiliating for affiliation’s sake. We’re not doing too badly as an independent union, but we are very limited in our current capacity.

NWUSO: Our 501c3 is another avenue for increasing our capacity. Pre-pandemic, we set up a legal fund to handle group non-payment grievances that we had to take to court. It was held at the offices of Levy-Ratner, a New York labor firm that we have longstanding ties with. We view this legal fund as similar to a strike fund, so that deadbeat publishers know that we are able and ready to take them to court. The contributions to the 501c3 fund are tax deductible and could have a wide appeal among the creator groups and other unions we work with in various coalitions, as well as many freelance workers we are in touch with.

The Board at the time was made up of good people, but they were all on the boards of other non-profits such as Labor Arts, Triangle Shirtwaist Memorial, Puffin, etc., which were the Board members’ primary concerns. Plus, they were never really won over to the idea that NWUSO should view this legal fund as the main work. The old Board didn’t survive the pandemic lockdown. 

1st VP Dave Hill is putting together a new board that will focus on reviving the legal fund and serving as a grievance committee that will decide which potential grievances we can take on (we currently have two cases in court). The board will be responsible for fund-raising and for administering the fund. This will take legal expenses out of the NWU budget, about $25k in 2023. Legal costs will no doubt go up as the work expands.

Integrating NWU: For all our good work, we are still a mostly white union. We have to do better at reaching out to Black, Hispanic and immigrant freelancers. Targeting concentrations of freelancers of color should become a focus of our comms work and outreach in the coming period. We have developed good relations with NABJ-LA, and they are part of our coalition for the statewide CA Freelance Worker Protection Act. We are also pitching a panel to the national NABJ conference in Chicago this summer.  

In the past, we won group nonpayment grievances at Heart & Soul and Ebony, and new members were brought into the union. Two of our national officers came out of those fights. We also waged a big group grievance at Inkwell with several Spanish-language translators. Again, we won new members, and another member of our national leadership came out of that fight. He is leading Sindicato Nacional de Escritores, our Spanish-language division. This should be fertile ground for further struggle if we give it more focus. With more outreach to these groups of freelancers, there is little doubt that we will find more fights and more fighters.