Organize This

Warring Pens at the National Writers Union

"We've probably gotten more than a million in subsidies from the UAW," says Williamson, "but the administration went along spending money like a bunch of drunken sailors." (For example, a recent Trustees Report notes that Tasini racked up travel expenses of $11,915 during his last few months in office.) In 2002, the delegates called for long-term financial planning, but no plan has materialized.

Says Menaker, "People have this model of a five-year business plan, but that doesn't work for a union. Each year we come up with a budget that is a financial plan." Menaker called the previous dues level "unrealistic," adding, "Our problem has not been a lack of planning but a lack of income. It's a tribute to the staff, our previous leadership, and our members' creativity and volunteerism that we've come as far as we have on such a small dues base."

Williamson sees a philosophical shift at work. While the NWU used to focus on services such as libel insurance and contract advice, money is now steered to high-profile advocacy projects. There is talk of organizing shops of 100 or more—contract employees and staffers—which she thinks is less likely to succeed than organizing writers one by one. Says Williamson, "Freelance writers don't have a lot of union consciousness. They don't work with each other; they work in competition with each other."

Some writers are defecting to groups that better serve their individual needs, but Williamson isn't turning her back on the NWU yet. "I'm sticking around to see if they can make it a union that's useful for freelance writers," she says. "I'll be watching and come April when my dues are up for renewal, then I'll make a decision."


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