By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The National Writers Union, founded on the premise that freelance writers can organize and demand better treatment from the industry, always seems to be tangled in one internal struggle or another. But this year, as dire economic realities set in, elected officials have been forced to make decisions that will either ensure the union's long-term survivalor cause it to self-destruct, depending on whose side you line up on.
"I think it's an exciting time for the union," says NWU president Marybeth Menaker, a Los Angeles-based technical writer who took office this past spring and has been active in the union for many years. Under Menaker, the union is concentrating on campaigns to negotiate better writers' contracts from book publishers and Time Warner, and to prevent technical writers' jobs from being "offshored" to places like India and Pakistan. "Our purpose is clear," says Menaker. "We exist to engage in collective action to advance the rights of writers, in whatever capacity we can do that."
Menaker is also ushering in unpopular changes, such as the recent decision to raise the union's annual membership dues. Previously, the union charged $95 for anyone making under $25,000 a year in writing income. That base rate is being raised to $160, plus an added 1 percent of all writing income above $25,000. Some members are furious and threatening not to renew. Others call the move "dues suicide," arguing that it will speed up a pre-existing drop in membership to the point where the union will lose money and lapse into irrelevance.
Menaker acknowledges that the dues hike may cause a drop in membership, "but I believe that if we promote what we can do and what we are doing for writers, we will grow again." She calls the increase "long overdue," because most unions rely on dues for the majority of their revenues. She also applauds the union's Delegates Assembly, a 100-member body which met in September and voted by a large majority to pass new bylaws. Among other things, the new bylaws state that many decisions (including dues increases) will be made by the delegates rather than by the full membership. They also bring the NWU into compliance with the constitution of the UAW international union, which it joined in 1992.
Meanwhile, a faction of dissenting union leaders is alarmed to see power shifting from members and locals to an elite bloc at the top. Some say they were pressured to pass the bylaws and led to believe that the bylaws would be sent to members for a full vote. They say members would likely have nixed the dues hikeif they had had a chance to vote. While Menaker defends the new "representational democracy," dissenters see the imposition of a top-down corporate model and are looking for a candidate to challenge the prez when she comes up for re-election next month.
To her critics, Menaker is "J.T. Menaker," a handpicked successor to former president Jonathan Tasini and someone who eerily reflects his methods and ideology. Tasini became an international hero in 2001, when the Supreme Court upheld his landmark copyright case, Tasini v. The New York Times, guaranteeing that freelancers own the electronic rights to their work. But by the time Tasini quit the NWU this past spring, he had alienated many of his own supporters.
Tasini's crusade to provide affordable health insurance to all freelancers fell to earth a few years ago, when an insurance carrier endorsed by the union turned out to be fraudulent, leaving hundreds of members with unpaid claims. A team including Tasini, Menaker, lawyers, and consultants searched for a new carrier. But the search screeched to a halt on July 1, when the union stopped offering health insurance altogether, except to members in New York State. (The New York policy is protected by state law, and now costs just under $400 per month.)
"This was a tough thing to come to terms with, to understand that no matter how hard we tried, there was not going to be an insurer," Menaker recalls. "It's not something we wanted to believe." To be sure, the union was up against a hostile economic environment in which insurance companies are loath to insure a "risk pool" of self-employed professionals. But the insurance crisis left members suspicious of their leaders and a less than transparent decision-making process.
"We have a looming financial crisis and we still have not done the kind of comprehensive financial planning that we have to do," says Steve Simurda, a longtime member who founded the Western New England local and ran against Tasini in 2001.
"I see this union as a plane that's headed straight for a mountainside, and I don't know how they're going to turn it around," says Miryam Williamson, another veteran member and former Tasini challenger who is now the NWU's VP for internal organizing.
In addition to lost health insurance commissions, which were hefty, two other union revenue streams are drying up: member dues and UAW contributions. Membership has dropped by about 25 percent over the last 18 months, from a high of about 7,400 in February 2002 to about 5,600 in September. (Menaker has other explanations, but many believe members are quitting because they can no longer get health insurancethe reason most join in the first place.) Finally, the NWU must now pay a larger share of its revenues to the UAW while UAW funds diminish, according to a set formula.
"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 morecontract employees and stafferswhich 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."