Shrouded skyline, silver lining, and a new year for some
I am not myself of the faith that celebrates its New Year today, but then, neither is the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Our Nation's Capital. He didn't let that stop him from issuing a statement about Rosh Hashanah, however, so I'm not going to let the fact that I'm not a Republican keep me from quoting it, because no matter what your faith or political persuasion or life circumstances, whether to you it's the year 2003 or the year 5764 or just the first day of the rest of your life, this one applies to all of us:
"Rosh Hashanah is a time to seek the mercy and forgiveness of the Almighty and your fellow man, to reflect on past actions, and to demonstrate renewed commitment to faith and family."
Of course, I like to believe that "fellow man" part wasn't meant to exclude those of us who are neither fellows nor men, but then he's talking about the same cultural tradition that features this daily prayer for menfellows: "Blessed art thou, O Lord, who has not made me a woman." So as I quote a Republican Christian male on the subject of a Jewish holiday, I'm going to take some of that good advice myself. What could it hurt?
Hope there's a bright spot in your day, and a silver lining to whatever clouds are hovering over you. Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter of the Union maid series.
posted by Janet Dagley Dagley @12:35 PM
(We interrupt the Union maid series today for this breaking-news obituary.)
George Plimpton, participatory journalist, 1927-2003
The incessant refrain of journalism, of course, is Bob Dylan's question: "How does it FEEL? How does it FEEL?" But today there's another musical question stuck in my head, not Dylan's, but Paul Simon's:
"Who'll be my role model, now that my role model's gone?"
George Plimpton was about the nearest thing I had to a career role model, and the closest I ever got to thanking him for that was six months ago when Michael and I watched, applauded, and laughed as he received the Poor Richard Award from the Small Press Center in New York, in recognition of his contributions to independent publishing. (By the way, if you find yourself fortunate enough to reach an advanced age and people suddenly start giving you a bunch of awards, get to the doctor for a checkup and hope they can find whatever it is that may be about to kill you, because a lot of distinguished people tend to get a bunch of awards right before they die.)
Obviously I couldn't follow his example in many ways: he was tall and male; I am short and female. He was born into a wealthy family that had been among the first European settlers on this continent, and I was born into a not-so-wealthy family that had been among the first European settlers on this continent. He earned degrees from Harvard and Cambridge; I dropped out of Wright State University to continue my education, majoring in on-the-job-training. He only had one actual job in his whole life, and he stayed in that job for as long as I've been alive. I've had quite a few jobs, and haven't stayed in any of them for more than a half-dozen years. In fact, the Poor Richard Award was part of a tribute to the 50th anniversary of his editorship of The Paris Review. Speaking of Paris, he lived in Europe for awhile, and so did I, some decades later and a thousand kilometers or so east in the Paris-of-the-20s-of-the-90s. He played professional football and wrote about it; I was offered a chance to join a professional women's football team (a novelty act that went nowhere) back in 1974, but my day job as a reporter required me to work every other Saturday so I had to decline. He was in the circus; I was in the circus. He also boxed, played pro baseball, tennis, bridge, golf, hockey, and played bit parts and cameos in numerous movies. Obviously I couldn't keep up with him, try as I might, but it's been fun trying.
Plimpton called himself a "participatory journalist," though all journalists participate whether they acknowledge it or not. Before Hunter S. Thompson went gonzo, before Tom Wolfe got on Ken Kesey's bus, Plimpton was out there in the boxing ring or playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions or a bedouin in Lawrence of Arabia.
I took some notes during the Poor Richard Award ceremony in March, and I can still read some of them even now. E. L. Doctorow presented the award, a statue of Poor Richard's Almanac publisher Benjamin Franklin. "He is the inventor and sole practitioner of literature of a particular genre," Doctorow said, "Adventurous self-deprecation, in which he humiliates himself by attempting tasks he's not capable of. His affliction is unassuagable." Doctorow told the crowd what they already knew about Plimpton's history as editor of The Paris Review, told us about how, "as a callow youth, he shamelessly pursued Ernest Hemingway until he got him to talk." Over the years, Doctorow said, Plimpton created an "accidentally invaluable record of 20th- and 21st-century writers.
"He couldn't not have done it," Doctorow said. "The moral from Plimpton's life work is that if we don't write our stories and our poems, someone else will write them for us."
As he stood there at the podium, brandishing what he called "The Ben," Plimpton was reminded of another first-name statue, the Oscar. "I went out once to the Oscars proceedings in Los Angeles," he said. "I had been in a film called When We Were Kings, and the film won an Oscar. I was hoping they might give another Oscar to me. I was at the Governor's Ball right next door to the ceremony when (producer) Leon Gast gave me his Oscar, and said, "This will get you in anywhere anyone asks, 'Where's your ticket?'
"So now I have the Ben. I want a good table in the back." He paused to look over his prize, then added, "It should be bigger."
Plimpton said that "literary magazines, like butterflies, don't have very long lives, usually. The reason the Ben is in my hand is not because of me, but the people who've worked on the magazine over the years, and the writers who were too good, too independent, to find other publishers."
"The Ben" and Plimpton's other awards and trophies must stay in this world, even as he moves on to the next. Still, I hope he gets credit there for the life he lived here, and I hope they give him a good table in the back. Because the breaking news is not so much that George Plimpton died, but that he lived, and that he lived so voraciously, and he never failed to acknowledge his own presence.
posted by Janet Dagley Dagley @5:39 PM
Union members have a tradition of calling each other "sister" and "brother" as a way of reminding ourselves that we're all one big family. Sometimes we argue, or even bicker, amongst ourselves, as brothers and sisters do, especially when sitting next to each other in the back seat (which is pretty much the position freelance writers find themselves in when it comes to the publishing industry: way in the back with the dog and the groceries). But -- like siblings -- we forget all about those differences when we're working together to protect our family.
Union maid, part 3: Disintermediation
As you know if you've been reading this series so far, the family of freelance writers is threatened from all sides. Rates for many publications haven't gone up in decades. And for those same old rates, publishers now want all the rights they can eat. If we don't like what they're offering, we can't exactly try to sell our work to a competitor, because chances are the competitor, if any, is owned by the same parent company. You've already heard about the problems of freelancers of all kinds who can't buy health insurance (because no company will sell it to them), about the offshoring of American jobs, particularly those of technical writers, about how we're not allowed to bargain collectively (which leads right back to the beginning of this list: rates for many publications haven't gone up in decades).
So what can we do about all that? Maybe we can't bargain or go on strike, but there is something we CAN do: we can disintermediate. (No, that's not one of the words I got when I was a competitive speller.)
We're lucky that way. Thanks to the magic of digital technology, disintermediation is happening in many industries these days, perhaps most notably in the recording industry. We don't need publishers anymore to make or sell writing. We can do that ourselves. Now I'll concede that there are still some advantages of selling your work to a book publisher, particularly if you get a big advance, as there are still advantages of selling your work to a magazine or online publisher. Readers (and viewers and listeners) are in the habit of looking to major publishers (or other media organizations) for the "content" they consume. The existing publishing industry has a well-established distribution system, and we don't really want to reinvent that: we're writers, remember? But when it comes down to it, they're nothing but intermediaries -- that is to say, middlemen. Unlike many union members who work in factories or offices or hospitals, we can cut out the middlemen and sell our work direct to customers.
Or we can try other, more radical business models, including the one I'm using here: the free-content model, also known as the Grateful Dead business model. Like, say, the Village Voice, we're giving away the content (the photos; what you're reading right now) in hopes of cashing in on ancillary sales: advertising like what you see there in the left-hand column; sales of products such as T-shirts. The Grateful Dead, of course, gave away their music by letting fans record concerts and trade those recordings, but until Jerry Garcia died in 1995, they made more money year after year than any other touring band.
I've invited my sister and brother delegates here not only to see, admire, and criticize my attempt at the free-content model, but also to demonstrate how the work of writers who sell their books, or sell rights to publishers who sell their books, can easily be sold online. I've just set up a special bookshelf at Powell's Bookstore (a union bookstore, by the way), featuring a few books by members of the National Writers Union.
Powell's is one of my partner booksellers; the other, of course, is Amazon.com: nonunion, but it offers much more than books so I use both. Just to give you an example, here are a few books by some of the people I worked with at the 2003 NWU Delegates Assembly:
John Dinges is a Professor of Journalism at Columbia University and former managing editor of NPR News:
Miryam Williamson is the NWU's Vice President for Internal Organizing:
Sue Davis is co-chair of the NWU's New York unit:
Jersey-born Jeff Perry has a Ph.D., but it hasn't spoiled him a bit:
Lynn Goya lives in an unusual Nevada town: one that doesn't allow gambling. She's also an expert on one that does, and she was kind enough to offer us a few handy hints about the city:
Al Blanchard is a mystery man:
Jules Older is a wise, laughing yogi who can twist himself like a pretzel, and who agrees with me that John Prine is the best writer in the English language:
And Tommye-K. Mayer wrote this book (literally) single-handedly. It's been endorsed by Sen. Bob Dole AND Dr. C. Everett Koop:
And those are just a few examples.
Union siblings, we don't have to do everything single-handedly. Look what I've put together here with just my two carpal-tunnel-challenged hands. Just imagine what we could build for ourselves if everybody, or even a bunch of somebodies, lent a hand. Actually, we don't have to imagine it: the AFL-CIO has already started building it right here.
Speaking of the AFL-CIO, the House of Representatives is set to vote on protecting overtime pay next week. Have you contacted your Congressperson about it yet? Let them know you're paying attention. And don't forget to take action on the National Writers Union's Rights for Creators campaign. If media companies can change their names, they can just as well change their contracts, too.
posted by Janet Dagley Dagley @5:00 PM
I had hoped that by today, I'd be able to tell you about some of the people I was hanging out with in Las Vegas and in particular, their books or other writing available online. I still hope to do that, but instead of putting all that together, I've spent the day answering questions from some other delegates who didn't quite understand what I was up to here. I do clearly disclose that The Dagley Dagley Daily gets a piece of the action for each item sold through this site: that's how this blog hopes to support itself. So I won't be mentioning any authors or books today, and I hope all those questions are resolved soon.
Union maid, part 2: Day of delay
Instead, let me tell you about the most controversial, most contended decision we made at the National Writers Union Delegates Assembly, with approximately 100 elected delegates, such as myself, representing the various local units of our union. New York has the most members, so we got the most delegates. As you may have noticed, the publishing industry, and therefore the freelance-writing industry, tends to be skewed toward New York. Of all the things we voted on over the four days of the assembly, including new bylaws and a dues increase, only one of the questions that came before us resulted in a tie that had to be broken by the president, and it was literally a bunch of writers arguing over a single word.
Our union has a slogan: "Good writing must be organized." It's been that way for years. A resolution was introduced in this assembly to change that to "Good writers must be organized," and the maker of the resolution believed that "good writing..." was a mistake, and that the people who came up with the slogan years ago had intended it to say "Good writers..." even though those members who were around way back then said "good writing..." was intentional.
Under the supervision of a professional parliamentarian, three speakers were allowed on each side, for or against the resolution. I rose to speak in opposition: "I am against the proposed change because it would exclude some writers," I told the assembly when it was my turn at the mic. "We don't want just good writers in our union. We want bad writers, mediocre writers, hacks. We want all writers." The roar of laughter was so loud I thought sure I'd swung the room to my point of view. But the discussion went on, with various delegates arguing that this or that was the "better pun." Finally we voted, and it was dead even. Our President, Marybeth Menaker, then cast the deciding vote, and so our slogan remains, "Good writing must be organized." I guess that'll show those publishers who demand we sign over all rights for all time in all universes, at no additional compensation, for something we sold them back in 1987 and then sold in other forms several times over in the intervening years so that we can't sign over those rights even if we wanted to. That ought to make it possible for people who want to buy health insurance to find someone to sell it to them. That ought to go a long way toward getting collective bargaining rights for freelance writers. And it ought to stop offshoring, too. If only we had no other concerns, so that we could spend all our time arguing over words.
posted by Janet Dagley Dagley @5:45 PM
Once upon a time, passengers on commercial flights were about as likely to speak to each other as commuters traveling on buses or subways: a nod, a muttered "excuse me," that was about it. We don't ignore our seatmates these days, and everybody knows why. The passenger safety brochure that shows where to find the exits and life vests and illustrates "crash position" also advises travelers to get acquainted with the people in nearby seats. So that's just what we did on the plane to Las Vegas last Thursday. There was a group of about a half-dozen young guys from Long Island (pronounced lew-on guy-land), escorting one of their number for an extended bachelor party, which seemed to have begun even before they boarded the shuttle bus from the parking lot. Most everybody on the plane was going to the desert for pleasure, not business, including the couple seated next to me: Ruth and Ted, also from Lew-on Guy-land (names changed to protect whatever privacy they have left; we were flying JetBlue after all). Before takeoff, we shook and howdied, and they explained that they were headed to a family reunion of sorts, with folks coming from all over for a shared vacation. I told them I'd be working pretty much the whole time, as I was on my way to a union meeting.
Union maid, part 1: Dagley Dagley goes to Circus Circus to represent New York, New York
"Union, huh?" Ted said. "So you're those people who don't want to work."
We had about five hours ahead of us in that winged tube, which at that point hadn't even left the gate. I like to think that if Ted had been sitting next to a person of African descent, he wouldn't have blurted out some bigoted remark about his seatmate liking chitterlings with watermelon. I like to think that if he'd been sitting next to a gay man, he wouldn't have said, "Look, buddy, I'm not interested so don't try anything." I even like to think that if he'd been sitting next to the CEO of a big corporation, he wouldn't have asked the executive why his salary was several hundred times that of an average employee of that firm. But he was sitting next to a union activist, and he seemed oblivious to the rudeness of his remark. I considered, for a split second, how best to answer him, and quickly concluded that hollering, "What!!!??" might not be the best response even though that was the first one that came to mind. Instead, I decided this might be a good opportunity to engage in some of that aforementioned activism.
"Actually, we're the people who do the work," I told him. "In the case of my union, we're all self-employed, because it's a union of freelance writers: the National Writers Union."
"Freelance writers have a UNION?" he asked, the first of many times I heard that question on this trip.
"Yes, we do," I told him. "And we're part of a very big union: we're Local 1981 of the United Auto Workers. Nontraditional workers like us are the fastest-growing segment of the union: doctors, graduate students, adjunct professors, cab drivers, cartoonists, day-care workers -- there are a lot of independent contractors in the UAW."
"Wow, freelance writers," he repeated, shaking his head in disbelief. "If you guys don't stick together, you don't stand a chance."
"Exactly. Especially with the media conglomeration that's going on: almost everything is controlled by 4 or 5 companies."
Poor fellow (and his poor wife, who sat between us). He must have found himself wishing he'd sat next to a Mormon missionary or a time-share salesman instead, but hey, he started it and I was going to finish it. During the course of our journey, he learned that freelance writers are not allowed to engage in collective bargaining like most union members, because we are considered independent businesses and it would be considered an antitrust violation if we banded together to negotiate rates. He learned that while some other independent contractors, such as actors and dramatists, have been exempted from that prohibition by acts of Congress, the Freelance Writers and Artists Protection Act, introduced last year on our behalf by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), died at the end of the term after the Republicans won so big in last November's mid-term elections.
"Have you tried pointing out to the Republicans that you're small businesspeople seeking less government regulation? That sounds like their kind of thing," Ted offered helpfully. I agreed, but I told him we haven't gotten much encouragement from the GOP so far: maybe we'd have a better chance if we were big businesspeople.
Ted and Ruth learned that because we are freelancers, we have to provide our own health insurance, except that we lost our group plan earlier this year and could find no replacement coverage anywhere at any price, as most insurers are discontinuing "association-type" group plans. Now some of our members are covered under higher-priced individual plans, and more of them, especially those with pre-existing conditions, now find themselves among the estimated 40 to 50 million Americans with no health insurance at all and no immediate hope of finding a company that will sell it to them. Even if they do find one that might sell them insurance, it won't cover -- ever -- any of the medical problems they already have. I'm more fortunate than many, because I'm covered under my husband's insurance, although they're still holding up payment for all my bills while they determine whether I might be a child covered on someone else's insurance, or eligible for Medicare. I pointed out to the insurance company that my date of birth would answer that question (I'm 50, too old for the first option, and too young for the second); it's been several months now but apparently math is not their best subject.
My temporary neighbors couldn't believe it when I told them about our campaign against what was then called AOL Time/Warner (they dropped the "AOL" the very next day) and its demand for all-rights contracts, and the other publishers that give longtime freelancers an ultimatum: turn over the rights to all the work you've ever done for us, even if we only paid for first rights, for no extra compensation, or be exiled from the publication and never allowed to write for any of that company's magazines or newspapers again, their articles expunged from the publications' archives.
I told Ted and Ruth about the thousands of freelance writers, most in our BizTech division, whose clients have replaced them with writers in India, the Philippines, Malaysia, or other places where English-speakers are willing to work for pennies on the dollar. They'd already heard about the offshoring of jobs and how that may be the reason behind the "jobless recovery."
"Seems like it would be a threat to homeland security," Ted pointed out. "If somebody writes an instruction manual for software, wouldn't they have to have the software to do it? And wouldn't sending the software abroad be somewhat risky? Most every program has some kind of 'back door' so that developers can fix bugs and install upgrades." I said it seemed that way to me, too.
Ted went on to say that the problem is not people who don't want to work, but people who want work and can't find it, or people who do work and still can't cover their basic expenses. And most of all, he said, the problem is that so many of our nation's decisions are being made by, and for the benefit of, people so wealthy that they never really had to work a day in their lives.
Since he'd been such a sport, and since he'd pretty much taken over my side of the argument, I decided to reward him with some comic relief.
"Want to hear a union joke?" I asked my seatmates. Sure, they said.
"A friend of mine in the Airline Pilots Association told me this one," I began. "A team of negotiators came out to report to the members on the contract they've just hammered out with management. 'It's a pretty good package,' the lead negotiator explained. 'We were concerned about the effects of fatigue on our ability to perform on the job, and it took awhile, but we think we've got something workable. From now on, we only have to work on Tuesdays.'
"The meeting went silent, then the members started murmuring amongst themselves. Finally a member in the back of the room raised his hand to speak.
" 'Um, would that be EVERY Tuesday?' "
The plane began its descent into Las Vegas at that point, and the Captain explained that we needed not only to return our seats and tray tables to the locked and upright positions, but since the cabin crew was also the cleanup crew (to save money and keep fares lower), he asked us to help prepare the cabin for the next group of passengers. Ted and Ruth were eager to begin their vacation, and I was looking forward just as much to the work I'd come there to do. We saw each other a few minutes later at the baggage claim, and we wished each other luck.
posted by Janet Dagley Dagley @5:59 PM
Back in home port
I sure hope this picture is worth 1,000 words, cause I'm too tired to type any just now after the long days on my short trip. Stay tuned for more about my trip to Las Vegas, and thanks to Michael for going out at dawn the other day to get this shot.
And speaking of long days, have you contacted your Congressperson about the threats to overtime pay yet? Let your representative know you care and you're paying attention. Meanwhile, I'll go rest up.
posted by Janet Dagley Dagley @3:18 PM