Thursday, 4 November 2021

Unity in diversity

What does it mean to be part of a “union” of “independent contractors”? My article below on this question is cross-posted from the blog of the National Writers Union:

The Book Division of the National Writers Union, including Delegates and other NWU members interested in issues related to books, e-books, and audiobooks, met online on October 22, 2021, as part of the 2021 triennial NWU Delegate Assembly (“DA”).

This was an important opportunity to assess what we’ve done, what we are doing, and what remains to be done — together as NWU members, and with allies.

As outgoing Co-Chair of the Book Division and as a Delegate from the Northern California Chapter of the NWU, I gave a report to the Book Division and the Delegates on highlights of the work done in the name of the Book Division, and other national and international advocacy for copyright and writers’ rights by the NWU, since the last DA in 2018. The earlier reports on the NWU’s international advocacy and coalition work to the 2018 DA and the 2016 National Executive Board meeting provide some context, background, and framing of the issues that may be helpful especially to those new to these issues and activities of the NWU.

I have served as Co-Chair of the Book Division since first being nominated from the floor and elected at the 2009 DA, and as de facto sole Chair since 2018.

From those 12 years of experience, I take away two lessons above all others for myself and for other NWU organizers, office-holders, and members:

First, the union is us.

There is no “they”, there is only “we”, in a union of which we are members. Our members have many skills — and not just as writers! The structure of a union enables us to do more together than we could do separately. But at the end of the day, we are the ones who will need to do the work, or it won’t get done. The NWU does what NWU members are moved to do. No less, and no more. “Organizing” is about empowerment and facilitation, not salesmanship.

NWU members often ask whether the NWU can do something to help them, or provide some “service”. The answer, almost always, is that the NWU can do almost anything, if and only if enough NWU members volunteer and are motivated and committed to do it. Some of the most important and valuable “services” provided by the NWU, for example, are the advice about contracts and the informal (but often effective) assistance with grievances provided to fellow NWU members by unpaid volunteer members of the NWU Grievance and Contract Committee. The role of the NWU is to facilitate mutual aid, knowledge and skill sharing, and collaboration between members. We can only liberate ourselves, and help each other to do so. We can’t hire someone else to free us or to win our rights for us.

Second, we are more diverse than most of us (or most others) realize, in more ways than most of us realize.

Over the years, I have met with NWU local chapters in Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and with at-large NWU members from throughout the country. I’ve also represented the NWU in national and international federations and coalitions with other writers, authors, and journalists, including the IFJ Authors’ Rights Expert Group, IFRRO, the International Authors Forum, and the Authors Coalition of America.

I try to ask each writer I meet two questions: What are you writing? And how do you make money from your writing?

What continues to surprise me — and to surprise my fellow writers, when I report back on the range of answers I’ve received — is not the diversity of answers to the first of those questions, but the diversity of answers to the second.

I think most of us, and most others who think about writing, realize that writers are demographically diverse in age, race, gender, geography, ethnicity, etc. (even if it is easier for writers from and in more privileged demographics to get published or paid) and write in diverse genres about diverse subjects.

But what’s much less often recognized, or taken into account in organizing and policy-making, is that writers are equally or more diverse in multiple independent dimensions of how we make money from writing: in what media (print, Web content, e-books, email, etc.) and formats (books and long-form works, short articles or stories, etc.) we are published, whether we are published by third-party publishers or self-publish our own work (in print or online), whether we work as employees (staff writers) or independent contractors (freelancers) or self-publishers, whether our income comes from a salary or sales or royalties or licensing fees or advertising (or some mix), whether our revenues come primarily from new work or from rights to our personal backlist, and so forth.

This is true even if one considers only authors of books, much less writers of all types of works.

In an invited discussion-framing presentation on behalf of the NWU at an inter-agency U.S. government workshop on digital marketplaces for copyrighted works in 2019, I outlined a taxonomy of 200 different combinations of business models, publications formats, and revenue sources for writing in digital media alone.

If anyone recognizes this, it ought to be the NWU. We often say — and it is true — that the NWU is the most diverse organization of writers (and now other digital media workers, as recognized by the decision of the 2021 NWU DA to constitute a new Digital Media Division of the NWU including the Freelance Solidarity Project) in all media, formats, and genres. Other U.S. writers’ organizations are limited by locality, genre, format, and/or business model.

How does this matter to NWU activism, advocacy, and organizing? Other writers’ groups can and sometimes do (quite properly, given their memberships and mandates) advocate for their members’ interests even when those are opposed to the interests of other categories of writers. But as a union, and one with an inclusive membership, the NWU has a special responsibility to look out for all writers and media workers, including those who wouldn’t find a home in other writers’ groups, and to uphold the union mantra, “All of us or none of us.” We can’t throw some writers under the bus, or advocate for policies that will advance us at their expense, just because they earn their income from a different business model or from work published in a different format than us or our friends.

Part of our role in coalitions as NWU members and activists is to make the extra effort to think about how the policies we advocate for will affect writers who differ from us along all of these dimensions. We’ve seen too many instances in which well-meaning policies put forward to benefit “writers” have helped some writers but hurt others.

But to reconnect this with my first theme, all of this diversity — if we recognize, respect, and are attentive to it — is part of what makes us “stronger together”, as AFL-CIO President (and holder of a degree in journalism) Liz Shuler told the 2021 NWU Delegate Assembly in an impressively on-point address.

Later in the general session of the DA, NWU stalwart Dan McCrory was nominated by the Book Division and elected by the Delegates to a 3-year term as Chair of the Book Division, to serve until the 2024 DA. Dan is a former national Recording Secretary of the NWU and a longtime member of the Southern California Chapter.

The NWU Bylaws allow for Co-Chairs of each of the Division, and Dan is open to sharing the work with a Co-Chair if one is later nominated and elected. There’s more for the Book Division to do than any one (unpaid) Chair is likely to be able to oversee or coordinate! Anyone interested in nominating themself for consideration as a Co-Chair should contact Dan at “writingbiz@yahoo.com” or by phone in Los Angeles at 323-719-2173. An email election will need to be held to elect a Chair or Co-Chairs of the new Digital Media Division created by the DA, and a Co-Chair of the Book Division could be elected at the same time.

I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to represent the collective voice of NWU members and so many other writers and media workers as Co-Chair of the NWU Book Division for the last 12 years, and look forward to continuing some of that work as an NWU member, NWU activist, and NWU delegate to international organizations.

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 4 November 2021, 15:36 ( 3:36 PM)
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