United Auto Writers
If you choose to think of the writers of America as artisans encumbered by nothing save their allegiance to truth and beauty, then news of their new alliance might discomfort you. If you happen to be a publisher accustomed to regarding writers as rabble grateful for whatever coins you toss them, your unease could be acute.
Founded ten years ago to represent the nation's free-lance writers, the National Writers Union has limped along shy of money and muscle. But on January 1 the NWU (membership 3,100) became Local 1981 of the United Auto Workers (membership one million).
Last June a passionate debate on joining the UAW ended in a surprisingly lopsided 64-to-5 vote of the delegates' assembly of the NWU to take what one delegate called an "existential leap of faith." Secretary-treasurer Bruce Hartford of San Francisco was among those who urged the delegates to swallow their fears. "Affiliation is betting the future of the union," he declared. "I'm going to vote for affiliation--and I hate the idea! It's a better gamble than small mistakes and small risks."
Later we asked Hartford about his reservations. "What I thought was important and powerful about the Writers Union is that we're really pioneering new kinds of organizations," he said. "We're trying to organize a class of workers who've never been organized before. We're not even defined in the laws as workers. I thought our strength was in innovation. I felt being part of a very large organization would hinder that innovation rather than help it."
Yet he voted to merge. The UAW is a progressive union, Hartford explained, and it offered the writers "far more autonomy" than he'd expected. What's more, life had taught him a lesson. "A long time ago I was a civil rights worker. In those days we felt the injustices we were dealing with were so obvious that if we simply called them to people's attention they would be corrected. That turned out not to be the case.
"Some of us entered the NWU with the same naive idealism--that the abuses we are trying to correct are so egregiously unfair and contrary to modern business practices that 'All right, we'll raise these issues and get somewhere.'"
It hasn't happened. Consider the NWU campaign to change the boilerplate of book contracts. The standard contract allows a publisher to decree a manuscript unsatisfactory and demand a return of the advance. The NWU seeks some kind of arbitration to determine whether the manuscript truly doesn't measure up or whether--and this is often the case--the publisher simply has lost interest in the book and doesn't want to publish it anymore.
The NWU is after a standard book contract along the lines of one signed by the Penguin Group and the much older and stronger British Writers Union. Give us the same terms, the NWU asked Penguin USA, which hasn't budged. "A small crafts union alone does not have the resources to deal with these multinational corporations," said Hartford.
Voting by mail, the membership approved affiliation with the UAW by a margin of 880 to 233. The terms were pretty irresistible: $35,000 a year from the UAW for each of two full-time organizers (who have evolved into one full-time and two part-time organizers, one devoted to the book campaign) and $10,000 for their expenses, up to $45,000 to pay a job-bank organizer for 18 months, office and meeting space for NWU units around the country, a health-care plan, and use of the UAW's lobbying, research, and legal resources. The NWU gets to set its own dues, preserve its own constitution, take its own political positions, and leave the UAW on 90 days' notice should 60 percent of the membership vote to disaffiliate.
What's in this for the auto workers? we asked Phil Wheeler, director of UAW Region 9A (to which Local 1981 now belongs).
"There doesn't necessarily have to be anything in it for us," said Wheeler. "Hopefully, we're doing it to help them. On the other hand, certainly there'll be things we'll be able to learn from them, such as the fact this is a pretty big group of nontraditional workers they've been pretty successful in organizing."
And it doesn't hurt to have some writers inside your tent, we said.
"The media has not done us any justice," Wheeler told us. "The labor movement gets no mention, no credit. Twenty years ago we were advocating fair health care for all Americans. Nowadays it's become a popular thing. I guarantee you, as this agenda moves forward, if there's anything you hear about the labor movement in all the discussion, it will be negatives, none of the positives. The environment has been a major concern of ours for years. If we get any publicity it will be bad publicity. And you can go on and on. Hopefully, by having more writers a part of us, it will educate them to what we're all about."
Is the Writers Union going to become the UAW's PR arm? we asked Hartford. "If we could provide them some help in that area I'd be very pleased," he answered. He's not worried about the writers compromising their independence. "Staff writers at the New York Times, network news, are all members of unions. They often write stories about their industries. I really don't see that it's a problem. And in our case we don't even have a job relationship."
A major function of the NWU is to intercede on behalf of writers who can't get paid for what they've written. So far the union has recovered about three-quarters of a million dollars--despite, Hartford pointed out, having no weapon to bring to bear but shame.
"If 3,000 writers among them have that many grievances--and we're only a tiny fraction of writers [the NWU estimates that 50,000 writers in America make money free-lancing and could belong]--you can imagine the scale on which writers are being ripped off," Hartford told us. "In one sense we're proud of that number [$750,000]. In another sense we're appalled by it.
"It's somewhat of an anomaly. We have no contractual agreements at all with most of the companies with which we have grievances, and we win most of them. The reason is writers are so used to maltreatment they only bring the most outrageous grievances to the union. Common decency makes [management] do the right thing, because they have no leg to stand on."
Democrats: Don't Advertise Here
The Reader's been catching it lately over a David K. Nelson cartoon in the end-of-the-year issue, the one of a bony Dorothy Tillman in skivvies deciding whether to dress up in her demure silver-revolver ensemble or the submachine gun with guerrilla-warfare coordinates. This drawing has been denounced in some quarters as racist and sexist--that is, as demeaning black women generally in the course of ridiculing the rod-packing alderwoman specifically. Gary LaPaille, chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, took this position. Like state representative "Lou" Jones, the National Organization for Women, Women United for a Better Chicago, and other contingents that held a press conference last week to denounce the Reader, LaPaille went public instead of bringing his concerns to this newspaper.
What LaPaille chose to do was issue a press release. It referred to the cartoon as an "editorial" and urged "Democratic officials to boycott The Reader by not placing advertisements in the paper until a formal apology is issued."
We reached LaPaille, making it clear we were not talking to him on behalf of the Reader but as someone with a column to write. Despite that clarification, we probably sounded like a company shill anyway, as gunslinging has long troubled us more than caricature. We asked LaPaille if his appeal meant what we assumed it meant: he's asking Democratic candidates for office not to seek votes through the Reader! That's right, he said.
You're telling Democrats it's better to lose if necessary than to advertise in the Reader and win? we wondered. "All I know is that women's groups as well as African Americans widely support Democratic candidates," LaPaille said. "A candidate will have to decide, weigh the pluses and minuses. They may wind up losing more votes if they advertise in the Reader."
How do Democrats manage to stumble into these ideological mousetraps! Democrats who want to reach lakefront voters and see the Reader as a pretty good way to do that are now on notice: there's a politically incorrect way to campaign along the lakefront this year.
JFK, the Era
The problem with JFK, which we caught up with the other day, isn't that it plays fast and loose with history but that Oliver Stone has made the wrong movie. He made a movie of a cover-up. The mother lode is the Kennedy era itself, with its parade of thugs, bimbos, cronies, and luminaries. Imagine a film peopled by, among many others, Bobby Kennedy, Judith Exner, Sam Giancana, Fidel Castro, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Gore Vidal, J. Edgar Hoover, Johnny Roselli, Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Hoffa, Edward Lansdale, Nikita Khrushchev, Madame Nhu, Ben Bradlee, and Mary Meyer.
You'd walk out of that movie wondering about Kennedy's assassination too. You'd wonder if God himself, or at least the spirit of some Greek dramatist who writes for God, was behind it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Duffey.