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The Promise of Liberalism

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To the editors:

In These Times management's failure to communicate honestly with free-lance writers, not the paper's poverty, sparked its current conflict with the National Writers Union [Hot Type, October 4]. If ITT dealt with us more openly and humanely, no dispute would exist today and the paper would face fewer financial problems.

No sensible freelance expects to earn a living from the left press; we write for ITT because we support the paper politically and value the open forum it offers. Problems with arbitrary copy changes and misplaced manuscripts, not money, forced us to seek a contract in the late 1980s. Understanding ITT's problems, we accepted an unorthodox contract which lets the paper indefinitely delay payment to writers when the money runs short. It requires only that ITT send each writer a letter explaining the delay. Grievances accumulated because the paper repeatedly withheld payment without such explanation. Each round of grievances brought new promises of change, swiftly followed by new misdeeds.

My experience as an Africa-based freelance in the 1980s, when ITT served as an outlet for more analytic or opinionated versions of stories I initially covered for Business Week, the Christian Science Monitor and other "mainstream" outlets, is not untypical. There were times when I would have willingly donated my work if asked, as I told ITT editors. What I found intolerable was the paper's pattern of promising payment and failing to deliver.

We mounted our current (very gentle) pressure campaign only after Editor James Weinstein unilaterally repudiated a joint fund-raising agreement which could have brought in more money for writers and the newspaper. Even at this late date, we encourage donors to support ITT: we ask only that they earmark their money for writer payments.

Our union exists to press the multi-billion-dollar corporations which dominate commercial publishing to treat free-lance writers justly. On these issues, ITT is a potential ally, so we certainly have no desire for conflict with them. We've never fought with any left publications like the New York Guardian--ITT's most direct competitor--which, pleading poverty, routinely asks writers to donate their work. ITT angers writers by promising payment and failing to deliver. Our union's efforts can strengthen In These Times by helping the paper close the gap between its admirable labor principles and its abysmal labor practices.

Steve Askin

PS: I'm a New York-based writer and a member of the NWU Delegates Assembly.

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