CHICAGO – The National Writers Union, Local 1981 of the United Auto Workers, held its biannual Delegates Assembly here recently. Founded in 1981, the NWU has chapters in more than a dozen major metropolitan areas of the United States, and is headquartered in New York City.
The NWU’s primary base is freelance writers – not so much screenwriters, newspaper journalists, or playwrights, which have their own guilds – but book authors, magazine writers, tech and business writers, corporate staff writers, publicity workers, poets, academics, employees of writers’ “content farms” and, more and more, writers of independently published books (hard copy and e-books), online journalists, and bloggers.
The NWU acts like a union, albeit for workers who do not generally work together in the same place. The union is famous for its highly effective Grievance and Contract Division, helping writers reclaim payments owed them, and reviewing contracts before they are signed to guarantee writers their optimal rights. A common mistake that writers make is agreeing to the fine print that signs away electronic rights that could be favorably negotiated separately. A single piece of good counsel from a union contract advisor can save a writer hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
This year’s assembly took up a number of timely resolutions. One was to update its commitment to “representing the interests of the full range of writers in the U.S. in all genres, media and formats. These include writers of diverse cultures, ethnicities, politics, religions and racial identities; writers of all ages and all sexual/gender orientations; writers with disabilities; and writers at all levels of economic and commercial success.”
Another supported protection for whistleblowers, resolving “that the United States take whatever steps necessary to affirmatively protect, defend and further the First Amendment freedoms of the press and of expression, and those freedoms which have, by treaty, become the law of the land, and are recognized as essential to a free and informed society.” The familiar names of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning hovered over the debate.
Two resolutions addressed the current situation in Wisconsin: one concerning the daily arrests of Solidarity Singers who gather at the State Capitol, ostensibly for “unlawful assembly without a permit,” in reality for speaking out against Gov. Scott Walker’s far-right agenda. One of its clauses reads, “Whereas this land is our land and there is power in a union and it is important to keep our eyes on the prize, not letting nobody turn us around” (the usual standards of grammar and sentence structure having been rhetorically suspended). The second concerned the participation of the Associated Press in the Wisconsin State Police investigation of protestors at the State Capitol.
The U.S. Congress has recently begun to take up copyright reform, last given an overhaul in 1976, over a generation ago. Pressure is being brought to bear on legislators by media conglomerates and big monopoly publishers. It is critical that lawmakers hear from the actual creators of culture, the writers and artists themselves, whose interests are often in conflict with those of the owners of mass media.
For example, Google proposes to digitize and publish virtually everything that has ever been written, and then make it available for purchase, including thousands of “orphan works” whose authors purportedly cannot be located. But those living authors, or their estates, would lose that income if such practices become normalized.
The NWU also argues for the creation of a Copyright Small Claims Court as a way of reclaiming rights of authorship in cases of online piracy, or unauthorized digital editions of authors’ work. A resolution passed supporting the NWU in its engagement with the copyright issue. As someone quipped, “Every writer has a dog in this hunt,” including those who may not have written anything for the last 30 or 40 years.
One of the hallmarks of the NWU is precisely that it is not a closed guild only for already accomplished and well-paid authors under contract. In every chapter, gatherings, webinars, and forums take place which help guide younger or less experienced writers through the confusing mazes of publishing. Interestingly, in a field as volatile as this, the younger writers often come in with vast expertise in new forms of social media communication that leave some old-timers agape with wonderment at the rapidly evolving technology.
To learn more about the NWU, see www.nwu.org, where you will find information about joining the union.