On My Membership in Unions and Guilds

 

Recently, I have been given the opportunity to renew my membership in the National Writers’ Union (as of 10/1/2004) and (later) associate membership in NLGJA (National Lesbian and Gay Journalists). 

 

I have decided not to renew these, but I wanted, in the spirit of constructive discussion, to share some thought on why. 

 

There are many paradigms for becoming a “writer.”  Many people write for a living, many others (like me) write for free, at first at least, because they feel they have something important to say.  So the stakes are different.

 

The best known occupation in the writing world is probably that of a journalist or reporter. But obviously there are many others: screenwriter, grant writer, technical writer (as for software manuals), proposal writer, certification test examination writer, speechwriter. Sometimes writing and software development of implementation go hand in hand. Many freelancers make a living with submissions on relatively specific, often technical or professional subject matter. 

 

I spent most of my “professional” career in information technology business systems. I decided to author and self-publish three books and a rather larger website in order to make public a certain way to look at individual liberty, especially with respect to gay issues. I have attracted a lot of attention, partly with the help of “Google hacking” (and, by the way, that seems to be spreading to many more engines these days). There were some book sales, and maybe I even broke even financially; but money was not my original point.

 

Of course, I would like to sell articles to periodicals, and sell the book to the movies, and get a novel published. In fact, I have talked to numerous persons about how to progress with this, and I think I have a pretty good handle on it.

 

In the meantime, however, I do not make significant income from writing and do not expect to in the near future on a regular basis the way union or guild members expect. Therefore, I don’t really think my continued membership is appropriate and might be counterproductive.

 

I do want to comment, however, on a couple of issues with respect to NWU, especially.

 

I have been particularly concerned about the way NWU tries to speak for its members on various political issues.  I think that writers, at least in my circumstances (as well as professional journalists) need to maintain some objectivity, and allowing an organization to represent them with respect to political views is not appropriate.  It is true that employees with specific skills and jobs in a company have the right to organize. But it is not honest to expect freelance writers to support “the labor movement” as an abstraction, or to imagine “capitalists” as the “enemy” and workers as “brothers.” 

 

I may actually agree with NWU on some matters up to a point. I am quite troubled by the way the president pursued the war in Iraq, for example, without proper U.N. support, although I don’t believe that the issue is a tradeoff between helping the poor and profits for military contractors. The issue is freedom and national security. The outsourcing and offshoring of jobs is a particularly sensitive and double-edged issue. When I “retired” from my information technology career, my functionality had been offshored, and I had difficulty with the job market because I had not kept up well technically with the newer stuff. That is my fault. Probably, someone in India is enjoying a higher living standard than before at about one-fourth my salary by my “sacrifice,” and that is not wrong in the grand scheme of things. The same economic and technological developments (the Internet, low cost printing, workplace efficiency, and, in the 90s, a rising stock market—indeed “investor capitalism”) that ended my old-fashioned career enabled me to become an author with something unique to say. I can’t have it both ways. Yet, it seems dangerous for us, as a culture, to become hooked on goods made overseas under slave conditions, with job losses to “working class” persons who did not have the educational opportunities that I enjoyed.

 

The controversy over “work for hire” contracts also perplexes me. It seems related to the idea of moral rights. Obviously, much writing must be done for hire (most professional journalism, most software manuals) and reasonably belongs to the corporate employer. I did one work-for-hire contract myself, writing multiple-choice examination questions (the job centers around writing good distracters), and I may well do this again; but it is certainly logical that the consulting company that hired me has complete ownership of this work.  More testy is the submission by a freelance writer to a major periodical or newspaper.  Nearly always, the employer will need to re-publish the article on the web. Online republication rights are much more crucial today to the publishing business than they were in previous decades (even ten years ago) while expected business practices concerning contracts and agency were developed. The basic problem here seems to be what Donald Trump simply calls “negotiation”—the writer needs to be in a strong enough position, based on his or her own expertise, to get a fair price for the work, even if bundled.  To the extent that the original idea for the submission came from the writer, the issue is potentially disturbing.  If I write on article on the technological solutions to COPA (Child Online Protection Act) that is original enough to get placed in a major publication even though I am a “new” writer, I will still have to be reasonable on the terms. As a whole this would not affect other writers if my material was original and unique enough. If I place an article on gays in the military based on my own experiences in college and in the military, however, I think my claim of moral rights, at least, ought to be much stronger, because no other person can replicate my own experiences. But it is hardly credible that “work for hire” is always wrong.

 

Perhaps NWU would maintain that “work for hire” should be expected only of employees with benefits, not freelancers. Again, that hardly seems practical in terms of flexibility, freedom, and the growth of jobs. More disturbing is the charge that corporate capitalists are trying to reign in on speech. There may be some truth to that. But the problem doesn’t come from freelance contracts themselves. It comes from legislation (like the proposed Induce Act) that may, under the guise of preventing piracy (an important aim by itself), reduces innovation and actually prevents low-cost writers or artists from entering the market at all.

 

President Bush has proposed making it easier for associations and guilds to negotiate group health insurance, and this could help “unions” like NWU. But applicants are likely to have to show that they earn a significant part of their income from the activity promoted by the union (here, writing). So that doesn’t do me any good. There have been other issues with insurance, such as the difficulty in getting acceptable media perils insurance for writers who deal with “controversial” subjects (read “gay and lesbian”).  I was declined by that one.  [NWU is certainly right in maintaining that the ability of guilds and associations to find liability insurance has been affected by weak stock market valuations, which makes insurance carriers much more concerns about underwriting and possible anti-selection.] It is worthy of note that some guilds and unions now (such as the Author’s Guild) only accept for membership writers or artists who make a living from their work or are able to get advances.

 

My method of leveraging technology to enter the market without supervision and being “noticed” before dealing with agents and the infrastructure that was in place long before the Internet may work in the long run.  Some may claim that, if I succeed, I am setting an example that is dangerous to the livelihoods of others. I don’t think my own work is, but maybe my example is a threat. I am both a “victim” of corporate creative destruction and perhaps one of its agents.

 

Bill Boushka   9/30/2004

 

Here is one partial reply from another person in one of the NWU Chapters:  (10/12/2040)

 

“Unions are by definition advocacy organizations, and they've always been politically involved. I don't believe that this compromises the objectivity of individuals who may be reporting news stories. However, I do know that the Newspaper Guild, which represents many newspaper reporters, is wary of taking political positions for exactly the reason you state. Other kinds of writers--from novelists to PR people--make no claim to objectivity at all. So, I guess we disagree.”

 

NWU writes in a bulletin:  (10/15/2004)

 

“The National Writers Union does not yet have a political candidate endorsement process on the national level. Accordingly, we have not endorsed any candidate in the upcoming presidential election. Indeed, some members feel this is as it should be to avoid divisions. Others feel we are affected by national politics and therefore we should take position on who we want to govern the nation.

In the future, if we choose to endorse candidates, I think we all can agree that any endorsement should be the result of a democratic and bottom-up process.

Nevertheless, we are part of the trade union movement in this country and we would be remiss if we did not inform you that our
parent union, the UAW International, has endorsed John Kerry for President.” (from Jerry Colby, NWU President).