FEATURE: THE NATIONAL WRITERS UNION (fwd)
Bill Konrad <konrad -at- SAGE -dot- CC -dot- PURDUE -dot- EDU>
Sat, 21 May 1994 06:50:00 EST
I know there has been info about the National Writer's Union posted
here before, but I thought the summary below was interesting. This
appeared in Issue 10 of CPU: Working in the Computer Industry. Info
about this e-journal and how to subscribe can be found at the end.
Bill Konrad | "There are two major products that come
konrad -at- mace -dot- cc -dot- purdue -dot- edu | out of Berkeley: LSD and UNIX. We don't
| believe this to be a coincidence."
| - Jeremy S. Anderson
5. FEATURE: THE NATIONAL WRITERS UNION
The National Writers Union (UAW-AFL-CIO) was formed in the early
1980s. Like most unions, we came together in response to
intolerable pressure. During the 1960s and 70s, massive changes
occurred in what we now call the information industry as old
firms were gobbled up by giant conglomerates such as Gulf &
Western and Time-Warner. A process that continues to this day.
Under these new regimes, it was no longer enough for a publisher
to make a reasonable profit, now they had to make maximum
profits. From an author's point of view, that meant three things:
First, pay scales were frozen or cut. To this day, many of the
major national magazines still pay freelancers the same rate they
did in 1960. Given inflation, that's equivalent to a 50% pay cut.
Second, the emphasis shifted more and more towards books and
articles aimed at the lowest common denominator mass audience.
It's called the 'block-buster mentality'. Writers who sought to
address smaller readerships were, and still are, marginalized.
Third, the old personal relationships between writer-editor-
publisher were replaced by boiler-plate contracts, bean-counter
bureaucracies, and cut-throat business maneuvers.
We formed a union because as individuals we were at the mercy of
companies that had no mercy. Except for the handful of big-name
super-stars, the information mega-corps see writers as disposable
and replaceable. Only as a community willing to support each
other do we have any chance of redressing our grievances on a
footing of mutual respect. A publisher who cares nothing about
mistreating an individual writer still has to be wary of angering
authors in general, for without the information creators, the
information industry has nothing to sell.
There were, and are, no shortage of writers organizations. But
none of them had as their primary purpose defending the economic
rights of their members. And none of them were based on
organizing and mobilizing writers around the strategic principle
of all-for-one and one-for-all. That's why we chose the union
form. We are not an institution that provides services for our
members. We are a voluntary, self-help, do-it-ourselves-together
organization. Some people say we are a 'non-traditional union',
but in truth we simply follow the old rank-and-file concept of
Today we have more than 4,000 members nationwide: journalists,
poets, book authors, technical writers, copysmiths, newsletter
authors, speech writers, and so forth. We are organized in locals
with our national headquarters in New York. Like other unions, we
have a health plan, a grievance system, job banks, and so on. We
also have data banks, press credentials, and contract advice
As freelancers, we are a different type of worker, we're 'self-
employed'. According to the Department of Labor, we have
'clients' not 'employers', so we are not covered by American
labor law. We have no legal collective bargaining rights, no
legal right to strike, no National Labor Relations Board, in fact
none of the protections that other working people have fought for
and won. As a result, we have had to develop new forms of
organizing, and new, non-strike, strategies.
For example, the worst thing about being a freelance technical
writer is the broker system. The brokers try to control access to
the jobs so that writers have to work through them. Typically,
they leech one-third of everything that the client pays for the
writer's labor. The services that the brokers provide are in
essence no different than those of a literary agent, but agents
charge only 10-15%. In response, union tech writers pooled their
knowledge and resources and hired a skilled coordinator to set up
a writer-run NWU Job Hotline that provides a low-cost alternative
to the broker system.
Our grievance apparatus is one of the NWU's great success
stories. It is entirely composed of volunteers, all of them
writers themselves, who go to bat for any member being abused by
a publisher or employer. We have successfully resolved almost 80%
of our cases. Over the past years we have recovered more than
$800,000 owed to our members by publishers who initially refused,
or simply failed, to pay. You've heard the old one-line gag: 'The
check is in the mail.' Most people don't know that it originated
as a description of the freelance writer's economic reality.
While of course we are proud of that $800k figure, we are also
appalled by it. The NWU represents about 2% of America's
freelancers. If $800,000 was being chiseled from just that small
group, you can imagine how much is being withheld from the non-
The NWU is one of the very few organizations working to insure
that the rights and needs of information creators are not
trampled in the rush to build and own the so-called Information
Superhighway. Words, stories, music, art, photography, do not
spontaneously burst into existence in the libraries, vaults, and
databanks of AT&T, Time-Warner, or Viacom-Paramount-
Simon&Schuster. Someone creates that information, and those
someones deserve to make a fair living from their craft.
That is why a number of union members recently filed a copyright
suit against the NY Times, Times-Warner, Times-Mirror, and Mead
Data. Over the past 30 years those writers sold articles to those
publishers who bought the right to print those stories in their
publications. Then the publishers sold the stories to Mead Data
who charge clients big bucks to read or download that information
from the Nexis database. Mead paid the publishers, but the
publishers never sent a single dime to the original writers. Yet
print copyrights are not the same as electronic-database
copyrights. The publishers sold rights they did not own. Hence
The National Writers Union is actively defending the rights of
creators in the forums where future information policy is being
hammered out. Naturally, we oppose any two-tiered society
composed of information-haves and have-nots, and of course we are
active in the struggle to ensure universal access to the
information sources of the future. But we are also concerned with
another type of access, access as publishers and distributors.
On a philosophical basis, everyone is in favor of open access.
It's not until you get down to the economic realities of actually
implementing it that push comes to shove. We know that if people
cannot afford the cost of information, equal access is a sham.
The other side of that coin is that independent creators have to
have the opportunity to make a living from their craft.
Unpaid amateurs have always produced an important segment of the
world's art and information, but the bulk of consistent high-
quality work comes from people who devote their full time to that
endeavor. Many do so as employees of the multi-nationals that
today have a stranglehold on the planet's major media. The
alternative has always been the independent freelancer. We in the
National Writers Union want to make sure that alternative remains
viable which means some way in which independent creators can
earn a fair return on the fruits of their electronic labors.
They say that freedom of the press only applies to those who own
presses. That was fine in 1776 when presses were affordable, but
now 90% of the print media is owned by a handful of giant
corporations. Today it costs almost nothing to air your opinions
on the InterNet, but you do not receive any pay for doing so. The
internet is a free speech agora, but not an economic marketplace
of ideas. Yet that market will soon be here. Electronic
bookstores, magazines, newscasts, entertainment formats, and so
forth are all on the immediate horizon. If that electronic
marketplace is designed so that you have to have a million-
dollars of hardware and a thousand-dollar-a-day connection in
order to be a distributor/seller, then the independent voices are
effectively denied access.
Of all the information policy issues being addressed by the
National Writers Union, none is more crucial than common
carriage. Will the information superhighway equally carry all
ideas regardless of content? The classic model of common carriage
is the phone company. Anyone can buy a phone and say anything
they want on it, and Pac Bell charges the same rates for
everyone. The great anti-Christ of common carriage is the cable-
TV web. The content of every second of every channel is monitored
and controlled. Now phone companies are merging with cable-TV
companies to bring us the information universe of tomorrow. Whose
model will they use? Congressman Markey (D-MA), Chair of the
House Energy & Commerce Committee, has introduced a bill
requiring common carriage on the information superhighway, but
only for the first five years. After that, no protection.
Needless to say, the NWU is fiercely opposed to any limitation on
the freedom of expression.
Bruce Hartford Secty-Treas,
National Writers Union
Issue: 010 CPU: Working in the Computer Industry 05/01/94+14
CPU is an electronic publication dedicated to sharing
information among workers in the computer industry.
1. ABOUT BOX
3. NEWS: SONY ELECTRONICS WORKERS ATTACKED BY POLICE
4. FEATURE: ON FINDING WORK
5. FEATURE: THE NATIONAL WRITERS UNION
6. FEATURE: "COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT" FOR COMPUTER WORKERS IN
7. BILLBOARD: PARTICIPANTS FOR SURVEY ON PART. DESIGN
8. CALENDAR & CALLS FOR PAPERS: JOURNAL OF WOMEN AND
MINORITIES IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING
9. LABOR BYTES: MISCELLANEA
10. EOF: LUDDITES!
1. ABOUT BOX
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CPU is a project of the "Working in the Computer Industry"
working group of Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility / Berkeley Chapter (though views expressed
herein are not necessarily those of CPSR... and while we're
at it, neither may they be those of our employers).
CPU is now into double-digits, and subscriber count at last look
this week was 2104. We've had quite a bit of ongoing
discussion on this question of whether or not the nature of the
employer-worker relationship has changed, and if collective action
by contemporary wage earners is passee. We'll summarize the
discussion in the next issue. If you have anything to add on this
question, send them in, and we'll try to include them.
But first... In this issue, we lead off with a recent news story
about a fight at the Sony electronics plant in Nuevo Laredo,
Mexico -- the material has circulated on a couple of lists, and we
forward it on here. We realize that our readership is fairly self-
selecting -- you need to have email -- so it's all the more
important that we make sure the other sections of our industry are
In this issue, we also feature a profile of the National
Writers Union, which we solicited. This piece is important for a
few reasons. First, many of the NWU members are technical writers
(including the author of the piece included here), those folks
writing the documentation and editing the READ ME files -- a
critical part of our industry. Second, most of their members work
in the same fashion as many of us -- as independent contractors,
under work-for-hire agreements or other type relationships, often
getting work through brokers of some sort. Third, writing prose
and writing software are pretty close in their nature. Fourth,
writers are having to confront the issues of publishing and the
InterNet -- just like many computer software authors. I think we
have something to learn from their experience...
We also have a very interesting -- and very important --
report on the rights of computer workers in Austria. We would very
much like to hear from people who work in the computer industry in
other countries, because we very much work in a global industry.
We have a lot to learn from each other. Send in your notes,
observations, news, gossip, etc.
A belated happy international worker's day, and while we're at it,
let's hear it for bringing back the 8-hour day!
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