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The National Writers Union Circus
A cataclysmic National Writers Union (NWU) annual Delegates Assembly in September has brought profound changes to the NWU. The parent union UAW (United Auto Workers) achieved the replacement of NWUs constitution and bylaws with their own. For the first time in over 20 years of union life, a dues increase has been imposed without membership approval. The autonomy of locals is to be constrained. Salaries for national officers have been increased and theres more of them. Instead of membership votes on these fundamental issues, the Delegates Assembly has been declared to be the members, but it will no longer meet annually.
Many founding members and activists worry that, in the words of Steve Simurda, Western Massachusetts freelancer, this is an identity crisis from which the NWU might not recover. The opposition minority are distressed, most of all, by the process. Bradley Cleveland, San Francisco delegate since 1987, noted: The UAW created a coercive environment in which delegates could not fairly deliberate the proposed bylaws. With resignations proliferating across the country, I wish I could lay my hands on the happy tonic NWU President Marybeth Menaker must have taken when she wrote in her post-DA letter to the full membership: Rarely have I been as excited to report on our Unions progress . Delegates left with a sense of accomplishment and a spirit of cooperation.
The bizarre Circus Circus casino was the Las Vegas venue chosen for this difficult NWU DA. With its labyrinthine design and featuring Adventuredome rides like Chaos, this hotel is the most dated of the Strip establishments. Circus Circus promotes its suitability as a family-friendly destination, but the giant leering clown face at its entrance seems more likely to scare the piss out of kids as they approach it than invite them in.
Before the Assembly
The National Writers Union had its beginnings in meetings hosted by the Nation magazine in 1981. Writer-activists, including such big names as Toni Morrison, E. L. Doctorow, Howard Zinn, Marge Piercy, and Helen Yglesias, were concerned about improving the lot of writers of all genres and in particular of freelancers. Isolated at their keyboards, negotiating as individuals with editors and publishers, writers were a group of workers fitting into no traditional workplace model, but suffering their share of professional indignities. The consolidation of media by conglomerates has been devastating to their ability to make a buck.
1991, the NWU membership agreed to affiliate with the UAW (United
Auto Workers, AFL-CIO) in the hopes of benefiting from financial
support and solidarity. The UAW was already venturing onto unconventional
ground, preparing to organize graduate students. The affiliation
agreement between the UAW and NWU allowed the writers group
to maintain its own bylaws, constitution, and decentralized organizational
structure, but stipulated that within three years, the NWU would
need to come into conformance with the UAWs basic documents.
Sarah Forth, NWU Western Region vice president and Los Angeles activist, picks up the story: Most NWU members who voted to affiliate did not know about this stipulation, however, having voted on the basis of the leaderships promises to them. In 1990, when NWU leaders proposed teaming up with the UAW, they informed members that even if the union became part of the UAW, Our constitution as currently written or as will be amended, not another constitution, will prevail in the NWU.
The NWUs house organ, the American Writer, Spring 1991, carried highlights of the draft affiliation agreement. One of the bullet points said The NWU shall retain the right to set its own dues and operate under its own constitution. When members in 1991 voted on the final affiliation agreement, a ballot statement signed by then-President Jonathan Tasini argued for the agreement, stating, We retain our own political structure and constitution.
The curtain drops over the intervening years, some claiming a periodic hand-shake renewal of the affiliation agreement and some saying the issue never came up. But this year, two weeks before the annual DA, delegates were presented with draft bylaws that radically reshaped their organization in the image of the UAWs corporate model.
Gema Gray, Bostons Communications Director, describes it in her resignation letter: In many respects I am more outraged by the manner in which the DA progressed than by the decisions which were taken. Bringing the NWU constitution in line with the UAW was rushed through in a matter of weeks, with little or no consultation with local SCs and no disclosure to the general membership. The new NWU constitution was crafted in a period of three days by a small hand-picked group and presented to delegates barely two weeks before the DA. I believe that the NWU national leadership either allowed, or was complicit in, the UAW railroading the changes through the DA in a way that precluded a referendum amongst all members
If this had been carried out with due diligence and proper consultation, many of our longest serving and most faithful activists would not be abandoning this organization after yearsin some cases decadesof service to it. We, the members, would have known in advance of voting for our delegates that they would serve longer terms and be voting on dues increases and a change of constitution on our behalf. Delegates could then have discussed their views on these issues and we would have elected them accordingly. That is how representational democracy is supposed to work, in my humble opinion.
The first hint of the impending gear-switch came when President Menaker turned up unannounced to a pre-conference Boston delegates meeting. Menaker seemed uncomfortable with her leadership role one she had inherited, unelected, as next in line of succession on the unions National Executive Board, when her controversial predecessor Jonathan Tasini stepped down. Her disjointed presentation of the changes about to be imposed was met with some dismay. Soon the delegates pre-Assembly listserv became an arena of rancorous debate about the unknown, as specifics were few and rumors copious.
At the Delegates Assembly
My Boston colleagues assured me that the DA would reflect the spirit of this unique union created by eccentric writers (the nature of the species) and vigorous activists. The DA is generally contentious, they said, but we leave re-invigorated in the fight against corporate media. Instead, this DA gave me a lesson in old-style, top-down unionism. Lee Sustar, a frequent NWU delegate since the 1990s, wrote in the Socialist Worker: With a series of constitutional and bylaws changes at the Delegate Assembly, the National Writers Union was brought into line by the leadership of its parent union, the United Auto Workers . This completes the NWU transformation into just another one of the declining bureaucratic machines that characterize the labor movement today.
The language of the UAW permeated the discourse and, for wordsmiths, was a telling sign of the culture change. No longer were we to be permitted to call ourselves the Boston Local. Local would refer to the NWU, in its relationship to the UAW. Local chapters would be called units. These units would no longer have the right to their own bank accounts, but would apply for reimbursement by voucher using duplicate receipts to the National office. All income, checks and cash alike, would be sent to the New York office.
Financial relations with the National office are already fraught. To illustrate, this year the Boston local discovered that the National had not been invoicing it for money owed to them monthly. Although the co-chairs pointed this out in the spring, the money continues to pile up, awaiting their invoice. Explanations were eventually tendered, but if they cant jump through this simple hoop, imagine how they will handle, say, 40 entrance fee checks from participants in a locally organized seminar, along with a slew of requests for expense reimbursements (rent, refreshments, copies) multiplied by 17 units.
The financial consultant the UAW may provide is unlikely to sit around inputting stacks of checks from around the country. Who will be dealing with the details when the staff is overworked already?
My imagination conjures up only three potential scenarios: the chapters become paralyzed by the delays and confusions emanating from the National; the chapters create an underground accounting system of their own, holding back enough petty cash to stay functional; the national office hires competent professionals, further beefing up a growing gaggle of employees the shrink- ing NWU cannot afford.
The issue of democracy dominated this carnival. Those supporting the changes point to the massive majority passing the bylaws. This, however, ignores the dynamic of the day, one from which people are only beginning to recover.
For the first time in NWU history, two paid officials from the UAW were more or less running the showJulie Kushner, a sub-regional director serving for many years as liaison to the NWU, and Washington attorney Gary Bryner. Kushner was in a rush to deliver UAW conformance on Friday, the first full Assembly day, due to her need to leave early for family reasons. As exhaustion set in, President Menaker suggested we break till the next day. Intervening to contradict her, Kushner insisted that we remain under the Big Top through the night if thats what it took to get to the vote before her departure. A 20-year-old national union of creative activists was asked to work, if necessary, until dawn because a UAW representative had a birthday party sleep-over to oversee (or so she told Sarah Forth).
Gary Bryner was introduced to us by those on the bylaws committee as equal to a Biblical scholar on UAW constitutional matters. The deference Bryner received from them might have stemmed from his role as assistant to UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, but his posture was that of an icy lion tamer. He ruled in monosyllabic negatives, sometimes without taking a breath, on one resolution and amendment after another. With his dismissal, debate halted, no matter how crucial delegates felt the matter to be, no matter how many months earlier the resolution had been presented for the DA.
one brave delegate, Helena Worthen, chair of NWU Chicago, asked
him what the consequences would be of our passing resolutions or
amendments he didnt agree with. He said theyd come to
his desk for approval, which he would deny. She pressed on, and
if we insisted on keeping them? The UAW, he said matter-of-factly,
could take the NWU into receivership.
In hindsight, this was the moment in which the will of the opposition was broken. But worse was to come. We managed to pass a resolution to take the bylaws decision to the membership for ratification. With that agreed by a large majority, all but 19 delegates voted for conformance in order not to push disaffiliation from UAW or forced receivership. We would take our case to our members.
Once the vote adopting the bylaws was secured, Bryner intervened to say that, by the way, the results of any membership vote would be meaningless, since according to the new bylaws, the DA is the membership and speaks for it. One long-time San Diego activist, Randy Dotinga, is mourning. I feel like a priest at an atheists conventiontotally out of place and with no power to change things. [The NWU] is not a good place to be.
The demoralization of the dissidents did not stop them from trying, unsuccessfully, to defeat a massive dues increase. For the past two years the members have rejected large dues increases and now, Byrner told us, we no longer needed to ask them.
The ability of the present leadership to shoot the NWU in the proverbial foot attained new sublimity when, despite the Grievance and Contract Divisions (GCD) overwhelming popularity, debate of their proposal for an educational campaign was halted following a close vote on a hostile motion.
The tension between direct support to members and high-profile campaigns against corporate publishers is a natural dynamic for a writers union. But GCD is one of the very few concrete services NWU members can point to as justification for their dues. NWU provides little health or liability insurance, no collective bargaining, no pension. The 50 volunteers of the Grievance and Contract Division offer free advice about contracts and pay disputes and have brought in over $1 million for the individual members, according to the National Grievance Officer, Pamela Vos- senas. Because GCD volunteers pride themselves on working across genre and political lines, Vossenas considers it ironic that the usual DA process of amendments and clarifications was truncated by the motion to stop debate on it.
Our members need to be educated on how to write a demand letter for money owed and what makes a good journalism or book contract, Vossenas says. Her GCD colleague Sue Grieger, Central Region VP, agrees: The NWUs national campaigns continue to focus on copyright issues, to the exclusion of members bread-and-butter concerns. The vast majority of grievances58 out of 99 filed in the past 6 monthsare over non-payment, not rights. Many writers would be willing to sell all rights if they could get additional compensation.
After the Assembly
Eric Lerner, a founding member, rejects the validity of the proceedings, pointing out that under the NWUs constitution, changes to the constitution, bylaws and dues structure need to be ratified by the membership.
The fierce reaction of the members to this imposed price hike for a ticket to the circus (the minimum fee has jumped from $95 to $160) shows it to be dreadfully unpopular. President Menakers offer to eventually allow dues to be paid through automatic monthly transfers from members accounts is unlikely to bring calm. Nor is it apt to stop the exit of membersdown from about 7,200, 2 years ago, to 5,462 on October 1, 2003.
In a blow to the National, Bruce Hartford, a founding member who had served as secretary-treasurer for more than a decade, resigned as volunteer webspinner, announcing he would not renew his membership. His take on things is uncompromising: To me, fundamentally altering the nature of the NWU and its governance without a vote of the membership is an utter violation of the most basic principles of democracy. The new Las Vegas order centralizes all authority and power in a cabal of paid functionaries, guts our NWU locals, and eviscerates the Delegates Assembly into a meaningless charade . If we were a nation, the name for what happened in Las Vegas would be coup or putsch. Since the Tasini-Menaker faction took control in 2001, they have more than doubled their own officer pay and expenses at a time when NWU membership is in freefall and the union faces the worst financial crises in its history.
Around the country, people are packing up their tents and going home. In Boston, six of us withdrew our candidacy for the steering committee, another had declined to run in the first place, and two elected members quit after a nasty first meeting.
Like trapeze artists, we tried to catch each other while doing a dangerous job, but at the end of the day the magic was gone.
Sue Katz is a writer and an activist. She has published in three continents, where she has also lived, including 14 years in the Middle East.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
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HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
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MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.