Ginny Diamond recently became the chapter chair of the UAW Local 1981 of the National Writers Union. This is particularly cool for a number of reasons:
Ginny has a long and distinguished career of protecting and advancing workers’ rights. She’s considered one of the top labor lawyers in the state of Virginia.We go way back. In the ’90s our young families even got co-blacklisted by a realtor at the beach after some crabs made a daring escape at our rental. Despite diligent searching the crustaceans were gone. Apparently they turned up under the refrigerator after we left, eating our security deposit from the afterlife. My mother, Barbara Raskin was one of the original organizers of the group that morphed into the chapter of the AFL-CIO that Ginny is now leading. Mom was a founding chair of the National Writers Union and president of Washington Independent Writers. She used to say, “We need a writers’ bloc.” So she helped create one.
Before she hit it big with Hot Flashes, she was a freelancer and mid-list author. She worked really, really hard cobbling together an income from a variety of gigs, collecting small advances for her novels — and writing low-paying feature articles for different magazines.
Her research sometimes brought her to scary places — like when she did an investigative piece about prostitution in which some of the women claimed they’d been busted by undercover cops after services were rendered. As soon as the article came out we started getting some late-night threatening calls. Certain people were clearly not pleased about the cover story.
Finishing the research and interviews was only half the work. Then the Paycheck Grovel would start. Weeks and weeks would go by with Mom waiting for the mailman to deliver her fees.
I remember her frustrated tears as the domino effect of late wages hit her checkbook and our finances. (Delaying payment was apparently a thing — the longer the money sat in the corporation’s bank account, the longer it accrued interest for them.) Calling the editors was fruitless.
Freelancers were treated like generic cogs, replaceable by an endless conveyor belt of hungry scribes. The institutionalized disregard for their value was bizarre — as if the contributions the writers made weren’t in fact the very foundation of the publishing industry.
(Nobody’s going to buy a newspaper –or advertising within it– if, say, there’s no news there. Likewise a novel with blank pages is really just a diary.)
Sometimes an editor would randomly decide to kill a piece he’d assigned; only approving a portion of the agreed upon fee. (“Yeah thanks for doing a great job painting my whole apartment. Since I decided to move out though, I’m going to go ahead and just pay you for the kitchen.”)
There was nowhere to turn. Basically single freelancers were screwed.
So in the early ’80s a large group decided to support one another formally. They worked together advocating for fair treatment.
Some things got better. Others haven’t. Or haven’t yet.
A recent piece in the New Republic outlines some of the obstacles writers face today: “The Wild West of digital media,” crappy wages, (there are still publications out there that justify underpaying since they’re giving writers the opportunity for you know – a byline,) non-compensated expenses.
Ginny has committed herself to forming strategic partnerships on behalf of writers, working on collective bargaining agreements that will include fair compensation for freelancers. I know how delighted my mom would be.
As with pretty much everything, watching each others’ backs is the only way to go forward.