DETROIT – We who live in the Internet age “google” just about any informational sources we can point a cursor at, downloading and forwarding articles of interest, even incorporating their language into scholastic research papers, to the horror of teachers everywhere on alert for plagiarism. Whole industries have grown up which hire writers into “content farms” (think literary catfish), paying them pennies to create verbal statements on virtually every subject. Comparable to the question of easily downloadable music, people assume these properties are free for the taking.
Where does this leave the writer who is trying to make a living, her thoughts and words yanked out from under her, copied, reprinted, perhaps resold as anonymous wordage, or even appropriated under someone else’s name?
Back in 1981, long before the Internet had grown into the behemoth we know today, the National Writers Union (NWU) was formed, uniting freelance writers of books, in journalism, and in business and technical fields. Now its work has expanded exponentially, addressing new issues of copyright, contracts, author protection and exploitation that could not been imagined 30 years ago.
The NWU, Local 1981 of the United Auto Workers, AFL-CIO, kicked off its 30th anniversary at its June 24-26 convention, called a Delegate Assembly, in Detroit. More than 50 delegates, officers and guests from 17 cities (including Mumbai, India) participated in workshops and discussions concerning the future of online journalism, e-books, the ongoing boycott of the Huffington Post – a NWU campaign in association with other writers’ organizations, and more.
The Google book settlement is a case in point. Google decided to make available digital versions of every book ever printed, riding roughshod over living authors with outstanding copyrights on their work. The NWU challenged Google in court and won. The NWU also has a strong grievance and contract division, which reviews publishers’ contracts, argues for more favorable terms for writers, and exerts pressure on publishers in cases of breaches and failure to pay. To date it has won settlements totaling almost $1.5 million for union writers.
The NWU comprises a number of divisions and standing committees, reflecting the different arenas its members are active in: Journalism, Book, Business and Technical, and its CAP (political cction), Civil and Human Rights, and Women’s Committees.
The Delegate Assembly passed eight resolutions. Along with some on internal organizational matters, others were of concern to writers, such as one concerning e-book contracts and royalties, and another preparing for a boycott of Natural Solutions magazine for nonpayment of writers. Other resolutions were on social issues, such as reaffiliation with US Labor Against the War (USLAW), support of Wisconsin public workers, support of ILWU Local 10, under threat for their April 4 strike in support of Wisconsin workers, and support of the ethnic studies program in the Tucson School District, and their use of the textbook Occupied America, written by NWU member Rodolfo Acuña.
Pending finalization of language, other resolutions are forthcoming concerning NWU 30th anniversary celebrations across the country this November, criticism of FBI raids against union activists for international solidarity work, and the unhealthy politicization of science.
NWU members enjoy access to a number of listservs which facilitate discussion among fellow writers about a variety of issues. Chapters are active in a score of cities and regions around the country, offering workshops, webinars and networking to support fellow writers in a fast-changing world. Today, writers are devoting much attention to the question of turning blogging into a successful, remunerative career, a new dimension of writing at a time when traditional print journalism is on the wane.
The NWU is an activist union, advocating for single-payer health care, supporting the Huffington Post boycott and strike with an electronic “picket line,” and fighting for better working conditions. Affiliated with the International Federation of Journalists, the NWU helps writers acquire press passes useful in covering global news issues. It brings together professional writers with many years of experience alongside beginners, some of them in new media, who have never been paid a cent for their work. Emerging writers need the advantages of union membership if they ever hope to craft a livelihood, even a partial one, from their writing. Union writers act in class solidarity with their UAW brothers and sisters, and with all working people.
An open Writers’ Forum at the Delegate Assembly gave a strong indication of the range of genres and concerns NWU writers embrace, everything from poetry to fiction to academic writing to journalism, memoir and satire. Fortunately, no one read from a technical manual on operating an electronic kitchen device, but you know, someone writes that stuff and deserves a living wage for it!
For more information about the NWU, and about joining, go to www.nwu.org.