Labor of Love (And Words)

National Writers Union Election Highlights Questions of Identity in the Electronic Age

Organizing writers, Miryam Williamson says, is like herding cats. "One of the reasons we're freelance writers is that we lack the gene for obedience," she says. Since 1989 Williamson has served in various capacities in the National Writers Union (NWU)— the only labor union for freelance writers— and she is currently running for president. Obedience fosters unity, and unity, as etymology suggests, is a cornerstone of any union. It's a virtue in short supply among the scribbling set, which partly explains the general failure of any writers' organization to lobby successfully for writers' rights.

It's a failure made all the more conspicuous in today's buyer's market. The Web, on top of the century's cascade of other mass media more exciting than pressed pulp and ink, has hastened the cheapening of the written word. It is blurring whatever thin line still exists between writer and "content provider." The all-rights contract has become the norm: a publisher buys an author's words in every medium, for all time, for any application that might ever be invented— and these are the actual words here— "therein throughout the universe."

Wordsmiths may not fit the union label— Elia Kazan made the film On the Waterfrontand not In the Library for awfully good reasons— but we might get more respect if we did. "Writers need a good union now more than ever," Williamson says. What's at stake in the NWU election is exactly what constitutes a "good union." For the last several months, NWU members have vigorously debated this issue on listservs; ballots were sent out in July, and a winner will be announced by September 13. The NWU's membership is only 5300 people, but the election's significance should have a far wider reach. The outcome will affect the discourse surrounding just what it means to sell words for a living in the digital age.

The election is also significant for its lack of precedent. NWU president Jonathan Tasini has reigned for nine years— so long that few members can recall a time when he wasn't at the helm. This decade of unopposed power, Williamson argues, has created an autocracy. "Tasini does not get the consensus of the union on major issues."

Quite a few union officials agree with her: Williamson has collected endorsements from former and present members of the national executive board and other union leadership. Supporters and detractors alike describe Tasini as a visionary and dogged writer's advocate. But the vision he pursues, Williamson believes, is primarily his own.

It's also a vision with a fair degree of merit. Since 1991 the union has more than doubled its enrollment. In 1992 it affiliated with the United Auto Workers, affording the NWU greater revenue and credibility. Tasini has also radically increased the national profile of the organization, in large part through a landmark lawsuit the NWU filed in 1993, Tasini et al. v. New York Times Co. The suit, which contested the right of publishers to collect articles on electronic databases without paying writers royalty fees, was eventually decided in favor of the publishers. But in the legal arena of digital rights, where the case law could fill a large travel brochure, it at least got the courts to recognize a conflict. As Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, points out, "It was pretty significant in highlighting the fact that authors and publishers don't always have the same interests."

Tasini's accomplishments have earned him admiration from NWU's rank and file, not to mention the literati that sit on his advisory board. Gerald Posner, author of last year's well-received Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledges that Tasini's "strong personality" and "aggressive nature" may have alienated his colleagues. "But those are also his strengths,"

Posner adds. "You don't hold a position like that for 10 years without making enemies. This is a writers' group, after all— you would think every election would be an absolute donnybrook."

But Williamson says NWU's president needs to do a great deal more, and a great deal less. She feels Tasini has failed to delegate responsibility (and thus prepare for a successor) and has moved valuable resources away from the bread-and- butter job of organizing writers and toward Tasini's pet projects, like chasing down nominal royalties for members' photocopied articles. "There's one basic, basic issue here," says Williamson, "and that's, who do we organize?"

NWU does not require members to be published authors, and the majority of its members are not full-time writers. In its pursuit of growth by any means possible and its lofty, perhaps unrealistic goals, such as securing full payment for writers whose stories are "killed," Williamson says, the union has lost touch with the full-time independent writers who should be its base.

David Wallis, a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Washington Post, agrees. Wallis says he quit the NWU after deciding that Tasini's objectives weren't based in reality. "The union's full of hacks. The only way they'd be taken seriously is if they'd fill the roster with serious journalists who write for top magazines and newspapers full-time, not housewives in Schenectady who've written one article in their lives, for American Quilting."

It's an uncharitable opinion, but it may very well be based in reality. After all, the already unemployed make terrible strikers.

 
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