Writers unite

History

Founding of the Western New England Chapter

Writers Get Down to Business, Local Free-Lancers Joining National Union

Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 6, 1988
By Bonnie Auslander, Special to the Gazette

“Good writing must be organized.” Advice from your high school English teacher? No, this exhortation comes from a pamphlet of the National Writers Union, and “organized” here means something more militant than paragraph structure.

“Individually, a writer is virtually powerless to change what a publisher wants to do,” says William Fosher, a journalist who lives in North Hadley and is an active member of the National Writers Union. “The publisher can just say, ‘Fine, if you don’t want to take it on those terms, I’ll find someone else.’

“But if everybody says – at least, if all the decent writers say – no, I’m not going to work for 4 cents a word, no, I’m not going to give you copyright, no, I’m going to demand that you pay me when you accept this piece, not when you run it – then there’s some clout to that.”

Fosher is one of 30 area members of the National Writers’ Union, a group committed to improving the wages and working conditions of free-lance writers.

Nationally, the group claims about 2,600 members, with 12 locals [tne term Local was replaced by “Chapter” or “Unit” in 2003] around the country, including New York, Boston and San Francisco.

The National Writers’ Union was hatched in 1981 in the offices of the left-wing magazine The Nation. “Despite the magazine’s high-falutin’ ideals,” Fosher says, “it was treating its writers horrendously.” The free-lancers there banded together and eventually won better rates and improved working conditions.

Since then the NWU has organized writers and negotiated contracts at eight magazines, including In These Times, Ms. and The Columbia Journalism Review. Its grievance committees have won more than $250,000 in back pay and royalties owed to writers. Among its members are Alice Walker, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Mary Gordon.

In strict legal terms, the union isn’t really a union, Fosher explains, since it cannot bargain collectively. “But we are a union in the sense that we take collective action with intent to improve writers’ condition and wages,” he says. “We’re not trying to get a publication to employ only union members. We’re trying to get editors and publishers to agree to a set of conditions, whether or not the writers they employ are union members.”

Fosher is part of a 10-month- old drive to resurrect a sublocal of the National Writers’ Union in Western Massachusetts.Two earlier efforts foundered, but Fosher believes this time the sublocal will flourish. “Last time we were trying to fly before we could walk,” he says.Over the past year the sublocal has sponsored several educational events, including a seminar on tax, legal, and marketing issues for writers, and a panel of editors from area newspapers and magazines who regularly use free-lance material. In that time membership has increased from 10 to 30.

The next step, says Fosher, is a more active recruiting drive that would allow the sublocal to become independent from the Boston local it is now affiliated with. Membership is open to all writers who have published or are actively trying to publish, with dues ranging from $50 to $150, depending on income.

Steve Simurda, a Hadley-based free-lancer whose work regularly appears in The Boston Globe and other newspapers and magazines, believes writers in Western Massachusetts face many problems. “This area is full of writers and would-be writers,” he says, “and as a result it’s very easy for editors to get free-lance material and not pay very much for it.

“A lot of people – just starting out – will do anything to get a byline. Or else they have other jobs and don’t need to earn a livable wage from what they write,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with people writing on the side, but he believes they can undermine the market for those who are trying to earn a living by writing full time.

“So newcomers need to be educated, writers who are writing full time need to be educated to know when to push for their rights, and editors need to be educated,” he says.

Simurda has long been aware of the special problems free-lancers face. As a Hampshire College graduate he worked in the late ’70s at the now-defunct Amherst Record, where he earned 35 cents an inch, or under $5 for an average-length article. “One week,” he recalls, “I organized a one-week vacation for all the free-lancers, because I realized that 70 percent of the newspaper was by us.” He chuckles. “That didn’t go over too well.”

Rates still lag far behind other areas, Simurda says. “I’ve talked to editors in Connecticut, in Boston, who can’t believe what writers get paid in Western Massachusetts.

Area newspapers pay freelancers from $15 to $200 per article, with $200 being “virtually unheard of,” says Fosher. Rates in Boston are up to three times higher, he says.

Jan Whitaker, a union member and correspondent for the Daily Hampshire Gazette until December 1987, explains that correspondents there are paid according to a complex formula. Time spent covering town meetings is compensated at $5 an hour, and news stories pay 60 to 80 cents an inch. Thus, for an average-length piece written after covering a three-hour meeting, a correspondent earns $25.50, with a minimum of $12.

Correspondents also write feature stories which pay from $20 to $60. “You can’t make a living no matter what you do,” says Whitaker.

Feature writers for the Gazette’s living section make from $50 to $150 per story. Writers for Hampshire Life, the paper’s weekly magazine earn from $50 for a short piece to $300 for a major cover story. The average for a cover story is $175, with most written either by staff or by experienced free-lancers, says Debra Scherban, the magazine’s editor.

At the Transcript Telegram in Holyoke, the free-lance minimum, is $25 per story. Rates at The Recorder in Greenfield and the Union News in Springfield range from $40 to $100. The Valley Advocate pays as little as $15 for some travel stories and $25 for food pieces. Short news pieces pay around $45, according to editor Kitty Axelson. Most longer news stories pay $150 maximum. The Advocate’s Money Watch section pays as much as $200.

The Hartford Advocate’s minimum is $50.

New England Monthly magazine uses free-lancers for their regional news and pays $50 for 200-400-word Material World pieces; from $150 to $300 for pieces of 400 to 800 words. The maximum for a full-scale feature is $1,400 says Susan Zesiger, assistant managing editor.

Not all members of the National Writers’ Union are journalists “The sublocal has writers of all stripes – children’s book writers, poets, fiction writers – we even have a writer of horror stories,” says Fosher.

Jeannine Atkins is among several full-time fiction writers active in the sublocal. She says she values the union for the contacts it has provided in her search for agents for her two unpublished novels. And she believes she has benefited from being around journalists. “I’ve learned from them to be more professional about my writing,” she says, “to separate the creativity from the business, which I think a lot of fiction writers don’t do.”

In her first year of full-time writing, after years of high school teaching, she says she particularly welcomes the social contact the sublocal provides. “The hardest part is the isolation,” she says, especially after being with 125 kids.”

Simurda agrees that many writers benefit from the union simply through conversation. “Say you’ve been hired to write a piece for a monthly magazine for $150,” he says. “If you mention it to me I’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, they normally pay $250 and they always pay your expenses. They’re trying to take advantage of you.'”

Not that all editors try to exploit their writers, Simurda quickly adds. “Sometimes editors aren’t aware that they’re acting unfairly.”

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