Winning Battles for Writers: National Writers Union

Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Interview with National Writers Union Organizer Andrew Van Alstyne

by Linda M. Rhinehart Neas

Being a freelance writer can be as lonely as a sailor adrift at sea. In this interview, Andrew Van Alstyne, an organizer with the National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981), will share the importance of solidarity among freelance writers.

Andrew is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan. He currently lives in Arlington, Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.

WOW: Andrew, to start, could you tell us a little about what the National Writers Union is and what they do for writers?

Andrew: The National Writers Union (UAW local 1981) has been around since 1981. We’re the only labor union representing freelance writers. We work on everything from contracts and grievances to copyright issues and member education. Writing is often a solitary profession and the union is a much-needed source of solidarity and support for its members.

This solidarity and support can be crucial for freelance writers. We just won a significant settlement with the publishers of Heart & Soul magazine for unpaid wages for contract writers and staff editors. The magazine’s publisher will sign a confession of judgment and pay the writers in six installments. The first payment was just sent to a writer facing foreclosure. This victory wouldn’t have happened without the commitment of the affected writers, but it also shows the value of collective action and solidarity.

WOW: How did the Pay the Writer campaign begin and why is it important?

Andrew: In 2011, AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315 million. By now, the Huffington Post model is well known: there are a small number of staff employees and a seemingly endless supply of unpaid bloggers. When the sale went down, the unpaid bloggers expected to be rewarded for the value they’d help create. Instead, the site made it clear that bloggers wouldn’t see a dime. In response, Huffington Post bloggers independently called a boycott of the site. We joined the campaign and launched Pay the Writer to make clear that working writers deserve to be paid. This was incredibly important beyond the Huffington Post as a host of imitators emerged all looking to cash in on unpaid bloggers. It’s a successful scheme—Turner just spent $200 million on Bleacher Report.

We recently announced an end to the Pay the Writer campaign so we can focus our energy on building an online writers division within the union. We already have strong divisions for book authors, journalists, and academics and an online division makes sense.

WOW: How can freelance writers know which companies are safe to work for?

Andrew: When dealing with particularly egregious cases, we will issue advisories. For example, in the case of Heart & Soul I mentioned earlier, we issued a Writers Alert letting writers know about the problems at the magazine.

In this market, there are far too many publishers looking to make a quick buck by taking advantage of writers, so it’s important that if a writer encounters problems, she or he has an ally. That’s why contract advice and enforcement is such an important part of what we do.

WOW: What advice do you have for writers—young and old—who are trying to work in the “online” market?

Andrew: A quick scan of Craigslist reveals the challenges writers face, as companies feel no qualms offering negligible rates for professional quality work. There is absolutely no way a writer can make a living on a fraction of a cent per word, but those kinds of job posts are everywhere.

For a new writer or an established writer, my first piece of advice is not to go it alone. Connect with other writers—joining the National Writers Union would be an excellent start. Beyond that, my advice is to not undervalue yourself. Every offer is negotiable, whether it’s on pay or rights or something else. Again, we offer advice on these to members.

WOW: What should writers be looking for in the future from the National Writers Union?

Andrew: We’ll continue working for writers. As our recent Heart & Soul victory shows, there is power in solidarity. As we build our online division, we’re looking to create the infrastructure necessary to make the digital age writer-friendly. Please visit to sign up.

WOW: Thank you for taking time to share this information with us, today. I know there will be many members of WOW interested in what the National Writers Union has to offer freelance writers.


Interview by Linda M. Rhinehart Neas for WOW. Linda is no stranger to WOW. She has taught classes, written articles, participated in contests and joined blog tours. She is an educator/writer/poet, living in Western Massachusetts with her husband and cat. Linda is also a member of the National Writers Union, Local 1981. You can read more about her on her blog, Words from the Heart.


Unknown said...

As a freelance writer, I read this article with great interest. I am now involved with my second magazine who refuses to respond to my inquiries about contracts or payment owed. It's frustrating.

I've also noticed the sites that increasingly rely on unpaid bloggers for their content. I imagine there are two sides of this coin, and while I'm happy to contribute, because it also helps me build my platform and clips, I will have to closely monitor how much I do without pay. I will check out your site. Thank you.

Margo Dill said...

I think it's important that editors and publishers realize that writers are not going to take this kind of treatment and that we can join together and fight! We are professionals. We work hard, and we deserve to be paid. Thanks for this great and important interview!

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