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Natl Writers Union FAQ, Part 2/4: Writers and Labor Unions

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Archive-name: organizations/union/natl-writers/part2
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Last-modified: 2004 Oct 31
Version: 7.1.9 7.1.9vr-usenet

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		   National Writers Union
	  Usenet newsgroup: alt.union.natl-writers

Maintained by: (Vicki Richman)
NWU staff:

                         PART TWO

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		 NWU-FAQ v. 7.1.9 7.1.9vr-usenet
	       Copyright 2000 Vicki Richman.
		    All rights reserved.

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                         PART TWO
o  Section 2:  Freelance Writing and the Labor Movement

    2.0.  What have automobiles to do with writing?
    2.1.  I thought it was illegal for freelance writers to have
          a union.
    2.1.1.  What's union scale for 5000 muckraking words exposing
            the corrupt FAQ-maintaining industry?

    2.1.2.  My publisher says my theater reviews serve the gay
            community, so I should be proud to work for zilch.

    2.2.  That's great, but what makes you a union?
    2.2.1.  "Sweeping changes" in "the publishing industry"? You
            mean "industries," right?

    2.2.2.  I got an offer to ghostwrite academic theses. Does
            that make me a kind of dope dealer to the fuzz? 

    2.2.3.  Do "the benefits of solidarity" mean you offer
            group health insurance?

    2.2.4.  So what you're saying is you're a union because you
            rig your elections and claim to be a democracy.

    2.3.  Get real. If you're contractors, you need a professional
          association, not a labor union.

    2.4.  Okay, you're a real union. So real that a publisher would
          have to be crazy to use my work if I joined the NWU.

    2.5.  Okay, so you're a real *freelance* union. So how come 
          your president gets a full-time salary?

Section 2:  Freelance Writing and the Labor Movement

2.0. What have automobiles to do with writing?

The United Automobile Workers should be renamed the Union of
All Workers. It has many professional and white-collar
locals, including lawyers, teachers, graduate students,
government workers, artists of various kinds and jai-alai

2.1. I thought it was illegal for freelance writers to have
     a union.

That question should probably be rephrased: Does the
National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protect freelance
writers from antitrust legislation?

Most of the NLRA applies only to employees. Freelance
writers are considered independent contractors.  But we are
free to organize ourselves into a union, take what benefits
the law now offers, and lobby for full labor protection.

Even without reform of the NLRA, we have achieved
collective-bargaining agreements with several publications.

We also achieve a kind of collective bargaining in our
standard contracts between writer and publisher. We offer
the standard contracts to our members, with training in
negotiating with the editor or publisher to gain preference
for the NWU contract over any other agreement. The contracts
-- specific to periodicals, books, and other types of
publishing -- were drafted by teams of attorneys and
seasoned writers.

2.1.1. What's union scale for 5000 muckraking words exposing
       the corrupt FAQ-maintaining industry?

Only 5000 words?

"Union scale" can be set only by collective bargaining
between publishers and a writers' union. As freelance
writers are contractors, we don't have complete protection
of the NLRA -- yet. The National Writers Union is working
toward reform of the publishing industry to include union
scale for freelancers.

For now, union members can ask their publishers to use the
NWU standard contract. The publisher may refuse at first,
but if enough writers insist, the publisher may have to
agree or put blank pages on the stands.

Also, the NWU has published its _Guide to Freelance Rates
and Standard Practice_. It does not attempt to set union
scale, but it gives writers an idea of what to expect. It's
available in most bookstores. Anyone can order a copy from
the NWU office; there is a discount for NWU members.

It would not be ethical to quote a price for any job without
collective bargaining. Fees vary among publications. The
circulation, the advertising and the intended audience all
affect the writer's pay, just as the size and location of a
theater affect an actor's salary. Our union hopes to
quantify the industry's sliding standards so that writers
will have a reasonable estimate of what their work is worth,
but we have an uphill struggle.

Therefore any dollar amount cited in this FAQ is for
illustration only. No standard rate is implied or should be

2.1.2. My publisher says my theater reviews serve the gay
       community, so I should be proud to work for zilch.

In bargaining with a publisher, freelancers should remember
that, unlike wages for typical employees, our pay is not
necessarily proportional to our labor. A writer falls into
the professional or artistic category, in which the venue,
the arena or the client is more significant than the hours

A Hollywood star, who commands eight figures for a film, may
do an Off-Off-Broadway gig for the union minimum. A successful
attorney, who bills corporate clients at $300 per hour, may
waive any fee in representing a falsely accused indigent.

Likewise, a writer may contribute an article without payment
to a small-circulation journal that sees service to society
as a higher cause than selling copies. However, that same
writer may demand five grand for the same article sought by
a mainstream magazine with millions of readers and more
advertising than editorial content.

That is good union practice, with ample precedent. However,
the writer should not be hoodwinked into free work for a
publisher reaping the profits. It is common for
special-interest publishers to convince gay and lesbian
writers -- and other minorities -- that they are working for
a noble cause. We are "honor-bound" to donate our
professional services -- or so they tell us -- for some
hypothetical greater good meaning little or nothing to the

Asking victims of societal discrimination to work for
nothing just because they are victims -- that's both
hypocrisy and discrimination, as it shams indignation
against exclusion to exploit and profit from exclusion.

Judge your venue. If it is genuine _pro bono_ work, be proud
to donate your services. The greatest writers have done
their greatest work for free. But if it is a publisher's
scam to increase profits with cheap labor, go to your union
grievance officer at once. The union may be able to help you
get the pay you have earned.

2.2. That's great, but what makes you a union?

o  Our vision

     We are fighting for the right to bargain collectively and to
     have labor mediators and arbitrators hear our grievances
     against unethical publishers. We have launched campaigns for
     sweeping changes in the working conditions at all levels of
     the publishing industry.
     We don't see ourselves as entrepreneurs with dainty home
     offices. We see ourselves as sweaty workers running from job
     to job with notebooks and laptops. We stand in solidarity
     with other workers.

o  Our grievance system

     Our grievance officers have recovered over $1,000,000 (yes,
     a million) for our members. They did that by going directly
     to the publisher -- by letter, phone and personal visit --
     and presenting the facts. No wrongfully injured NWU member
     has to confront a publisher alone. A trained grievance
     officer will represent any member who has been ripped off
     or who suffers unjust discrimination.
     That often (but not always) spares our members the pain
     of appearing in Small Claims and other civil courts to get
     the payments denied them -- or just eating the loss to avoid
     court appearances and legal expenses. If a lawsuit cannot
     be avoided, the grievance officer discusses legal strategy
     with the writer and the writer's attorney.

     Of course, before taking action, a grievance officer must be
     satisfied that the publisher has violated the law, professional
     ethics or standard industry practice, and has refused the
     union member's request to correct the violation.
o  The benefits of solidarity

     Our Publication Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) is a database of
     writers who have had journalism, fiction, poetry and works
     in other genres published in periodicals. It identifies the
     author as the copyright owner. If any person or corporation
     wishes to republish a work online -- as on the World Wide
     Web or in a proprietary service -- the PRC collects a fee
     and delivers it to the writer as the copyright owner.
     We offer our members health insurance and other benefits
     that they could not get as individuals, or that would be too
     costly. Faced with the challenge of finding low-cost health
     care for themselves and their families, freelance writers
     are sometimes forced to leave the industry. NWU tries to
     answer that challenge with a group health plan for members.
     We maintain confidential databases of agents and jobs for
     our members. We issue press passes to eligible members.

o  Our influence on the political system

     Our Political Issues Committee urges Congress and state
     and local legislatures:
     a. to reform copyright law to protect hard-working
     writers from theft and fraud, instead of merely
     protecting multimillion-dollar corporations from
     b. to establish freelance writers as creative
     workers, not as unprotected contractors;
     c. to give writers full protection of the First
     d. to protect writers from prosecution or retaliation
     against their work, and to so protect agencies that sell
     or distribute their work;

     e. to keep the Internet open to all writers and
     readers without government interference in personal
     or family decisions;
     f. to end discrimination by age, color, creed,
     ethnicity, gender, ideology, physical disability,
     race or sexual orientation in publishing and in all

2.2.1. "Sweeping changes" in "the publishing industry"? You
       mean "industries," right?

Since Guttenberg, publishing has come in many guises. That
is even more true now, with CD-ROM, the Web and interactive
software, like games and teaching tools.

Artists are driven not to the genres that pay the best, but
to the genres we have spent years learning and mastering.
However, typical publishers -- Disney, Murdoch, Time-Warner
-- continually expand into new enterprises, looking to
expand their profit and impose their own idea of standard
practices on us. Almost all major newspapers now have their
own Web sites. Therefore, we don't believe we can reform
labor practices in one publishing genre without seeking
changes in all publishing.

Since our inception, however, our activists have recognized
broad publishing categories. We have mounted specific
campaigns directed at specific genres. The deepest
historical rift in publishing is between books and
periodicals. So we organized our Book and Jouralism
Campaigns. Activists worked in the field more familiar to
them, while coordinating their efforts with activists in the
other field.

For example, the Book Campaign aimed at getting accurate and
intelligible royalty statements from publishers. The
Journalism Campaign sought full payment, instead of a kill
fee, for work frivolously rejected by editors.

In the early 90s, we added the New Technologies Campaign, to
protect writers against database rip-offs and censorship. At
the same time, many of our silent members -- corporate
speechwriters, catalog writers, advertising copywriters,
writers under contract to produce text books and technical
manuals -- started to file grievances. They had typically
been ignored in favor of their more glamorous sisters and
brothers -- poets, novelists, journalists.

These commercial contract writers went on to organize the
Business, Instructional, Technical Writing Campaign
(BIT). That made four campaigns, including New
Technologies. But few of our members actually wrote code or
designed Web sites, while most of our BIT writers were
working to enrich their repertoire with electronic work. So
we folded New Technologies into BIT, to form the Business,
Instructional, Technical, Electronic Writing Campaign

Although we have three campaigns -- Book, Journalism, BITE
-- we see the publishing industry as one, and ourselves,
however different our genres, as co-workers with a common
cause. The separate campaigns allow activists to focus on
specific targets, while unity amplifies our diverse efforts
into one movement aimed at reform of all publishing.

Contrary to previous versions of this FAQ, the vote by the
1998 Delegates Assembly did not actually exclude "computer
programmers" from membership in the National Writers Union,
unless they meet some other membership criterion.
Presumambly, "computer programmers" means code writers and
perhaps Web designers. The vote was simply a decision not to
actively seek to organize them.

The motion was sponsored by the former and present chairs of
the New York local, who preferred that organizing funds be
spent only on authors and writers in human languages.

The maintainer of this FAQ urges solidarity among quill
scratchers, fountain-pen squirters, code writers, Web
designers, and everyone in between.

2.2.2.  I got an offer to ghostwrite academic theses. Does
        that make me a kind of dope dealer to the fuzz? 

In most cases ghostwriting is legal and honorable, if
difficult, ego-bruising, and poorly rewarded. In some cases,
the *client* uses the ghostwritten work in violation of laws
and ethics governing the client.

If the client does that, it is the client who is the
violator, not the ghostwriter.

That said, it probably is not wise to respond to an
advertisement seeking ghostwriters of academic papers. If
the ghostwriter knows the client's intent to cheat, the
ghostwriter might be a collaborator in violating laws
or ethics. The ad might even be entrapment.

Slicker agencies advertise for a "research assistant," which
is a time-honored euphemism for a "ghostwriter." Call
yourself a research assistant, and anything the client does
with your work is the client's responsibility.

It is well-known that many blockbuster authors use hired
work by so-called "research assistants" on their staffs.
Such an "author" is in fact no more than an editor, handing
out assignments and assembling the work of others into a
final, best-selling version.

It is not so well-known that many academic papers are
produced the same way.

And of course the so-called "author" is virtually always the
copyright owner. Work by a "research assistant" or a
ghostwriter is work-for-hire. The ghostwriter loses all
rights if the contract is written properly.

If, however, there is no contract, or it is written badly,
the ghostwriter retains the copyright and may enforce it.

What about payment? If the client violates the contract by
failing to pay, the copyright reverts to the true human
author. If there is no contract, the true human author owns
the copyright whether or not the client pays.

Any ghostwriter should be careful to retain proof of
authorship, to be able to enforce a copyright. That may
become necessary to get paid. (In fact that scenario has
been the basis of many a murder-mystery plot.)

The National Writers Union includes ghostwriters as members
and officers, and grievance officers will support
ghostwriters. However, there is a unique problem to
ghostwriting grievances. The ghostwriter's client may also
be an NWU member. In that case, NWU grievance officers may
refrain from taking any action.

2.2.3.  Do "the benefits of solidarity" mean you offer
        group health insurance?

o  The short answer:


o  The real answer:

    The NWU represents its members in negotiating with insurers
    for the best rate and most equitable policy. Then we
    authorize the insurer with the winning bid to write up an
    NWU group plan. We monitor the insurer's billing and
    practices in the interests of our members.
    Therefore, no, *we* don't offer health insurance. We
    authorize a *health insurer* to offer an NWU group plan, and
    we make sure our members are treated well.
    This FAQ is on unions and freelance writing. The present NWU
    group plan is beyond the scope of this FAQ. To learn what
    the NWU health insurer offers, please phone the NWU office
    during business hours.

2.2.4.  So what you're saying is you're a union because you
        rig your elections and claim to be a democracy.

No, no. We never rig our elections. We don't have to. Nobody
has dared to run against our President in our history.

Nobody, that is, until the summer of 1999, when Miryam
Williamson (Western New England), representing the RenewNWU
party, challenged the nine-year incumbent, Jonathan Tasini
(New York), representing the Leadership for Writing Power
(lwp) party.

Tasini defeated Williamson by about 58% to 42%. 

Apart from the excitement and tension of our first major
personality contest, we have always had heated and close
ballots for policy issues, like raising the dues, paying
salaries to officers, and funding the Diversity Committee.
Once again, in the summer of 1999, members will vote on
whether to increase their own dues.

Earlier opposition to increasing the dues has been the
regressive nature of the proposals. While paying less,
impoverished members saw their dues increase at a greater
rate than wealthy members. The current proposal corrects

Approving the proposal, the membership voted to raise the
lowest rates by about 5% and the highest by about 8%.

2.3. Get real. If you're contractors, you need a professional
     association, not a labor union.

o  The answer by Mike Bradley, Chief Grievance Officer:

    The line between professional associations and unions may have been
    clear at one time, but no longer. The difference has become one of
    degree, not kind. The laws that define the organizations just hasn't
    kept up. 
    Both types of organization work to advance their profession's prestige,
    lobby legislatures, and help members improve their skills and income.
    For instance, both the union and the Authors Guild have supported
    programs aimed at making writers more valued in society, gone to
    Washington to lobby Congress, helped members with contract problems, and
    founded projects to collect royalties.
    Unions were once the working class counterpart to upper-middle class
    professional associations, but no longer. Doctors are in unions and
    secretaries are in professional associations. Class and occupational
    barriers have been transformed. So should our thinking about the
o  Vicki's answer:

    Writers are not a monolith. We are a diverse group. Some of
    us are rich and famous. Some are poor and struggling to be
    heard. Some are middle-class, with families and lawns. Some
    work alone in cold, drafty garrets. Some writers employ
    other writers as researchers, copy editors or (shudder)
    ghosts. The NWU unites all of us. It protects the integrity
    of the whole writing profession, not just a segment of it,
    against exploitation and injustice. It protects our right to
    a decent living.
    A union like Actors Equity crosses class and salary -- from
    the superstar who is also a producer of the show to the boys
    and girls in the chorus. Likewise, the NWU brings blockbuster
    authors -- who are also publishers of a sort -- in common
    cause with poets or technical writers working for only
    pennies a word.

2.4. Okay, you're a real union. So real that a publisher would
     have to be crazy to use my work if I joined the NWU.

Well, blacklisting of union members is a notorious
union-busting strategy by bosses. The most successful unions
respond by recruiting so many workers into the union that a
blacklisting boss would have an empty shop.

However, the NWU has no chance at a "closed shop" for
freelancers. We are such a diverse, independent, and
free-thinking profession that no union, no professional
association, could hope to recruit a significant majority of
freelancers. There will always be major players who refuse
to join.

Besides, under the NLRA, a closed shop for freelancers is

Still, there has been no noteworthy instance of blacklisting
against NWU members in the union history. We have recovered
well over $1,000,000 in greivances for our members, but
virtually none has cited a blacklist as the reason for
failure to be paid or hired. Many have cited unlawful
discrimation, as by ethnicity or sexual preference.

There is one tangential exception. About a dozen NWU members
-- all prominent and one the union president, Jonathan
Tasini -- sued the New York Times and other publishers for
selling the plaintiffs' works through Internet databases
without paying royalties to the authors, who owned the

About a year into the lawsuit, there were rumors that the
Times was blacklisting certain plaintiffs -- particularly by
refusing to publish reviews of their books. The rumors were not
substantiated, but several plaintiffs withdrew from the

The NWU members who persisted in the suit eventually
won, in the U.S. Supreme Court.

So, will you be blacklisted by your publisher if you join
the NWU? It's possible, but for now highly unlikely. If it
does happen, and you can demonstrate the blacklist to the
satisifaction of our grievance officers, you may be sure
that the full weight of our 7200 members will be thrown in
support of your cause, in the courts and in legislative
lobbies. Your disaster may eventually be redressed by a new
law protecting freelancers against blacklisting.

2.5. Okay, so you're a real *freelance* union. So how come
     your president gets a full-time salary?

He doesn't. Not any more. (And he'll remain a "he" for at
least two years.)

The 2001 Delegates Assembly has voted to pay the president a
"part-time salary" of about $25K, and to hire a full-time
executive director at about $60K.

Some members disagree with even the part-time salary. The
president, they argue, should be a voluntary position,
with a stipend, not a salary, of about $12K, in recognition
of service to the union, and an expense account.

To read the text of the amendment to the By-Laws, go to:

--------END PART 2/4--------CONTINUED IN PART 3--------

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