How is a Writers’ Union Different from a Writers’ Association?

by Bruce Hartford


educationThe following post represents the thinking of a longstanding National Writers Union member and leader. His name is Bruce Hartford. He has generously agreed to share his thoughts with all of us.

Why should someone take the time and energy to read this? Other than noting the fact that reading is primarily what writers have to do, probably dozens of other reasons justify this expenditure of a half hour of focused attention. Here are just a few of these.

  • Bruce lays out the initial process that got NWU started; people can only know how to move forward when they know where they are, and this absolutely necessitates knowing where they’ve come from.
  • Bruce makes a powerful, empirical, common sense case for one of the distinguishing characteristics of a union of writers.
  • Bruce invested over a decade of his life in helping to lead NWU, during the years—1990-2001—that exactly surrounded a plausible ‘proximate cause’ of our present pass, the Communications Act of 1996.

One might continue, but one can hope that this is enough.


Bruce Hartford was NWU Secretary-Treasurer from 1990 to 2001

typewriter3Most writers’ organizations focus on some combination of the following: social networking, writing instruction and peer-critique, career advancement (how to get an agent, how to publicize a book, job referrals, networking, and so on), copyright issues as they affect writers, and freedom-of-speech issues.

Writers’ unions like the National Writers Union usually do all of the above except teaching how to write. But the primary purpose of a writers’ union is to address economic issues affecting writers in the marketplace (pay rates, abuses, unfair treatment, and so forth) and particularly the inequalities of power between publishers/employers and writers. Most non-union writers’ organizations see themselves as industry associations promoting the interests of the industry as a whole; they do not address conflicts, abuses, and inequalities within the industry. And, indeed, most cannot do so because they include both publishers/employers and writers in their memberships.

That was why our union was founded. The NWU arose out of two conferences of freelance writers, one in New York and one in San Francisco, organized by The Nation magazine in 1980. According to NWU President Jerry Colby, “As the authors compared stories of their problems with publishers, the writers realized that their problems were not their fault, but were endemic in the industry. Some of these problems were breach of contracts, poor royalty rates, and incomprehensible royalty statements.” And, of course, poor pay. For example, in my treasurer’s report to the 1999 Delegates Assembly, I noted that our roughly 5,000 members earned around $40 million in 1998 (for an average of $8,000 each). But that same year Michael Eisner, the CEO of the Disney empire (which at that time included six daily newspapers, six magazine groups, and three book publishers in addition to all the other Disney stuff), was paid $57 million. That one man was paid $17 million more than all of our members combined. There is no way that the contribution of one man — no matter how talented — could be worth 7,000 times what a writer earned. That inequality of income was based not on true market value, but on inequality of power.

NWU New Members March

NWU New Members March

Out of those conferences came union organizing committees in a dozen cities. After almost a year’s work, the organizing committee elected delegates to the union’s founding convention in 1981. At that time, many, probably the majority, of the conference participants already belonged to one or more other writers’ organizations. But the reason they proposed a union was that the other organizations they belonged to were not chartered or designed to confront the information industry on economic issues. What the founding writers wanted was an organization different from the others, one that would be explicitly adversarial and confrontational. One that would address marketplace issues, defend writers against abuses by publishers and employers, and campaign for better pay. One that would be, in a word, a union. A union for freelance writers to take its place alongside the existing unions for staff journalists, screen writers, dramatists, and all other types of writers.

AdministrationWriters’ unions recognize that between author and publisher there is an inherently adversarial relationship. The publisher wants to make more money by paying us less; we want to earn more money from our work. This is not a radical notion. That there is an economic conflict of interest between buyer and seller is the underlying premise of the entire free market system, which intended to be an adversarial system. The publishers/employers are well organized; they have strong organizations, lobbyists, law firms, and other forms of interest groups. As individuals, writers have little power; only by standing together as a group can we have any hope of countering this inequality of power.


To promote everyone’s perusing this text does not mean advocating for adopting or accepting everything that this text advances. It does not imply belief that this text is complete or adequate.

But it does suggest that this document is one way to start a conversation. “A conversation about what?”

  • About what we are;
  • About how we’ve gotten to this juncture;
  • About what we need to become;
  • About developing visions, strategies, and plans that permit the possibility actually to achieve becoming what we need to be.

Once again, this list would be easy to extend. The point is not to be exhaustive, however, but to engage in a process that leads somewhere.

Or, in any event, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. I’ll be commenting on the heart of this post, Bruce’s work, fairly soon. I’d like to hear from others too.

5 comments for “How is a Writers’ Union Different from a Writers’ Association?

  1. larry evans
    July 29, 2014 at 8:59 am

    I am a new member – 2 years now – of the NWU although as an editor of a Pittsburgh steelworkers dissident magazine – the Mill Hunk Herald, I attended the founding conference in NYC in 1980 with 5 other Herald writers…

    In times of union contraction due to powerful outside forces ganging up on our very right to exist, I have always believed that the best defense is a good offense.

    It seems to me that our union – above all others – should be leading the way in spreading the art of communicating. The first thing that should occur is to broaden our reach in accordance with the times. The playing field has extended its borders to cover the entire earth and a few planets as well…Thus we should in 2015 – change our name to WWU – the World Writers Union. We should then also kick off a quarterly (then monthly, then weekly, etc) e-mag that is democratically edited (all contributing writers get to vote on what goes in) and is multi-lingual and blog friendly (encouraging all the wonderful websites that employ the written word to become WWU members.

    Conducting a fun barnstorming tour might be a good approach as well… every chapter (existant and in formation) should host the WWU officials/guest writers for book signing/union membership sign-up public forums to share works and ideas on going forward with the wondrous working world of writing…

    That’s my 2 cents in a nut shell n’at.

    • nwuatlarge
      July 29, 2014 at 2:59 pm

      Hey Larry!

      I’ll include the link to your comment in my weekly note to folks. I have to say that what you say makes a TON of sense to me.

      I’ve been playing around with acronyms along the lines of what you suggest. Not everyone likes them, but I do. Here’s one of the examples: World Organization of Writers, Networked to Optimize Worker-Empowerment! WOW,NOW!

      If you had been on the Steering Committee, you’d have discovered that the process that you outline was in most respects EXACTLY what the SC wanted website blog to become. We ran into weird trouble, about which I’ll be glad to explain more, if that’s ever relevant.

      Anyhow, I’m hopeful that we can get some conversation going here. Thanks SO much for taking the time to offer your heartfelt and excellent advice.

      Solidarity Forever!!

      • larry evans
        July 29, 2014 at 5:36 pm

        thanks for the feedback – I saw today on Truthout’s website that legislation was introduced recently to make union organizing a civil right – a rare example of the labor movement going on the offensive…

  2. nwuatlarge
    July 29, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    Hey Everyone!

    This is Jim. I could go on at length in response to Bruce’s generous and useful offering. However, I’ll just make a few brief points, and see if anyone else jumps into the fray.

    *First, I couldn’t agree more with Larry Evans’ ideas: we will engage writers by insuring their having a forum in which to do what they do and find readers with whom to converse and debate and scheme and so forth.
    *Second, however, we can have a very flexible, plastic definition of what a writer is: students and teachers from high school on up are writers; bloggers are writers; staff and leaders of non-profits and activist groups are writers; artists and musicians and other ‘creatives’ are writers; unemployed people are writers; soldiers are writers; YouTube video makers, FaceBook aficionados, Twitter addicts, and more are ALL writers; if we get one out of a thousand of such “writers” around our fair planet to join with us, we’ll have a couple million members in our union.
    *Third, just because we’re open to ANY SORT OF WRITER WHATSOEVER doesn’t mean that we’ll serve ‘professional writers’ or ‘freelancers for hire’ less; quite the contrary, the larger our movement, the larger our membership base, the more people we have ‘along for the ride,’ the more resources and opportunities in all areas of work will be available.
    *Fourth, we cannot avoid dealing with political discussion and debate: every problem that every resident of our Earth faces has political-economic and sociopolitical origins, with key historical context to boot; we need to be open not only to wrestling with such matters, but also to taking action about the things that support the survival and thriving of working people everywhere.

    There. That’s brief. For me, anyway. We need a big tent approach; we need lots of chances to ‘play with each other in the sandbox of life;’ we need to get our hands dirty learning from and teaching to each other about what needs to happen in our society, as well as in our texts; we need a strategic vision and a real plan to gain some clout for the likes of us.

    Solidarity Forever.

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