National Writers Union Election Challenge: An Update

Early this year the Oversight Committee of the National Writers Union overturned the fall 2001 officers election on the grounds that the incumbents’ slate had violated electoral norms and labor law. New elections were ordered for all contested posts on the NWU’s national executive board.

After a series of appeals by both sides, resolution of the dispute came only at the union’s annual Delegates Assembly in July. There, an unexpected spirit of compromise prevailed. Delegates adopted four remedies but decided not to re-run the 2001 election.

Background

The National Writers Union is an affiliate of the United Auto Workers and includes almost 7,000 freelance writers in about 20 local chapters. In response to several complaints from rank and file members in November 2001, the Oversight Committee voided the fall mail-ballot elections. The OC’s ruling centered on the “unauthorized distribution” of a videotape financed and produced by the UAW Public Affairs Department.

The UAW made the videotape to promote the NWU and to highlight the union’s victory in a historic Supreme Court case, Tasini v New York Times, about writers’ rights regarding electronic reproduction of their work. Jonathan Tasini is the NWU’s president. But because the videotape featured three members of Tasini's “NWU Democracy” slate in the ongoing election but none of his opponents; because it was mailed to every member and arrived at members' homes at the same time as the ballots; and because UAW funds were used to support a presentation strongly favoring Tasini, opponents of Tasini charged election malfeasance in violation of both the NWU’s bylaws and federal election law.

Tasini appealed the OC’s decision to re-run the election to the UAW, which passed it back to the NWU’s executive board for resolution. A majority of that board voted in March to reject the OC’s ruling, but the decision was challenged and continued to be fiercely debated.

Under the UAW’s constitution the rulings of the OC are not self-enforcing; they must be confirmed by a vote of the general membership. Since the NWU does not hold general membership meetings, the annual Delegates Assembly in July was the only opportunity for such a vote. But between March and July, the question of what body should decide the issue was intensely disputed among union activists.

A growing rift

The contested election is one of several internal disputes that have developed over the past several years, arising from what some describe as a basic conflict of vision. Long-time President Tasini, according to his opponents, follows a centralized, top-down leadership model, in contrast to their own model of grassroots activism and broad-based participation. They claim that the locals and rank and file members are not always well served by the national, and that projects and causes that spring from the locals and specialty divisions are languishing without national support. Tasini’s slate, on the other hand, pointed to a long list of endorsers and what they saw as a strong record of growth and accomplishment.

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In early summer 2001, dissension flared when the union’s health insurance program broke down. The providers, Employers’ Mutual LLC, turned out to be a scam. Claims were not paid. The company was ordered to cease doing business in several states, and many NWU members suddenly found themselves with huge unpaid medical bills, or unable to afford vital treatments that were no longer being covered. Disputes arose within the NWU about how to address the issue. Two rival groups developed within the union to investigate and find remedies: an official committee appointed by Tasini and the executive board, and an unofficial committee of rank and file members in several locals where the crisis has cut especially deep.

The Oversight Committee Ruling and Remedies

At the Delegates Assembly in July, delegates called for a full review and discussion of the OC ruling in a plenary session. Ken Wachsberger, Central Region vice president, observed, “The stakes were high. Few of us really wanted to spend valuable union energy and money on an election that could have left the union battered and exhausted, [and perhaps] a laughingstock in the labor community and with our real opposition, namely the publishers. But a majority of veteran delegates recognized that something harmful to the union had happened last year that we didn’t want ever to happen again.”

The delegates ended by accepting the ruling and its presentation by the OC, and they re-affirmed the role and function of the committee itself within a democratic union. But instead of re-running the election, they adopted four alternative remedies, presented by the original complainants to the OC, to ensure that election procedures are well defined and properly implemented in future. The remedies include training for the executive board and staff in election conduct; empowering the OC formally to recommend the hiring of third-party election management; forming a committee to review the NWU’s bylaws, constitution, and the role of the OC with respect to election procedures; and a requirement that the union’s executive director inform the membership of the delegates’ decision. In the shorter term, an ad hoc committee will identify and publicize the election rules that are already in place in time for this fall’s election.

Case Study in Compromise?

While debate and contested elections are vital to a healthy democracy, many people on both sides of the NWU rift became fearful last spring that internal dissension was undermining the union’s work, alienating members, and delighting the publishers. Before the Delegates Assembly, activists anticipated that the vexing issues would only become more tangled during the weekend of debate and policy-making. Whatever the outcome of the 2001 election challenge, the 2002 elections (posts for nine of eleven NEB positions) were certain to be hotly contested and potentially very harmful to the NWU’s effectiveness. Steve Simurda, who led the opposition slate in the 2001 election as its presidential candidate, reasons, “Rank and file NWU members were having trouble differentiating the messages of the two sides and were only seeing political infighting -- and blaming both sides. More importantly, many of those activists who worked during the last election to change our union's leadership were not sure that it made sense to struggle again this year for control of the National Executive Board. Since President Tasini has said this is his last term, several people argued that next year's election is the best time to work for fundamental change in the way our union operates. Next year, all NEB offices, including the president's slot, are up for election.”

Opposition leaders therefore met to work out a compromise proposal, which they submitted to Tasini: the formation of a “coalition” slate for the NEB, with a distribution of candidates from both camps that would reflect the outcome of the last two presidential elections. Tasini was receptive, and the exact terms were worked out at the Delegates Assembly. This fall, a slate of unopposed candidates will be elected to nine positions on the NEB (the president and secretary-treasurer have a second year to serve): four on Tasini’s side, four from the opposition, and one compromise candidate supported by both sides. This division was felt to reflect fairly the outcome of the last two presidential elections (averaging 45 percent against and 55 percent for Tasini and his NWU Democracy team).

Consensus on Health Insurance Recovery Action

Several resolutions were introduced at the Delegates Assembly by health care activists within the union. They were all defeated, but there was consensus here, too. The two sides crafted a compromise resolution, which was passed enthusiastically. The resolution provides for hiring an ombudsman to assist current and former members hurt by Employers’ Mutual; establishment of safeguards for new health care plans; and hiring a new health care administrator. The long-awaited report from the Health Solutions Committee will be sent to all NWU members, not only to those who were directly harmed by the loss of insurance. Funds were also reallocated to provide token help with out-of-pocket expenses to member victims.

What’s Next?

Only time can tell how effectively the compromises and consensus will serve NWU members over the coming months. In the meantime, activists on both sides of the rift are looking ahead to the 2003 elections. Tasini has said he will not run again next year, opening the field for new candidates on both sides. Says Steve Simurda, “While the coalition agreement was negotiated successfully, it does not mean that all disagreements will go away; nor should they. Our goal in proposing it was not to end debate, but to gain a practical advantage. We will work together on the issues important to all of us and try to minimize political ill will, which has soured vital working relationships within the NWU.”

For more discussion of events in the National Writers Union, go to Your Union: An independent voice for change in the National Writers Union, or National Writers Union.