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 NWU’s
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 there’s
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 Union’s 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. 

In
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 UAW’s 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 leadership’s 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
NWU’s 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 UAW’s corporate model. 

Gema
Gray, Boston’s 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 years—in some cases decades—of
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
union’s 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 can’t 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 show—Julie 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 that’s 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. 

Finally
one brave delegate, Helena Worthen, chair of NWU Chicago, asked
him what the consequences would be of our passing resolutions or
amendments he didn’t agree with. He said they’d 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 atheist’s convention—totally
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
Division’s (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 NWU’s national campaigns continue to focus
on copyright issues, to the exclusion of members’ bread-and-butter
concerns. The vast majority of grievances—58 out of 99 filed
in the past 6 months—are 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 NWU’s 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 Menaker’s 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 members—down 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.