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Reformers shock UAW by winning National Writers Union election
"We're about restoring democracy"

By Lee Sustar, NWU Alternate Delegate | January 2, 2004 | Page 11

AN OPPOSITION reform slate swept the National Writers Union (NWU) election in December by a 2-1 margin in a victory that stunned its parent union, the United Auto Workers (UAW). The reformers' big win is a repudiation of the power grab by a union faction associated with former NWU President Jonathan Tasini, which sought to consolidate control of the union in a highly centralized apparatus aligned with top UAW officials.

The victorious Working 4 Writers slate, headed by Vermont author and labor leader Gerald Colby, called for the right for members to approve a dues increase, strengthening the union's contract and grievance procedures, and reversing the union's loss of membership with organizing at the grassroots. "Its always been our belief that if the membership had the truth and enough information to make the right choice, that that's exactly what they would do," Colby told Socialist Worker.

"And that's exactly what happened in this election. Our platform was about solid organizing inside the publishing industry by forming grievance committees and moving towards collective bargaining and letting the law catch up with us, even as we push for legislative reform" on such bargaining by authors and freelance writers.

The NWU has been in continual crisis since the bitterly contested election in 2001, which coincided with the collapse of a fraudulent Employers Mutual health care plan that covered members in Illinois and California. Tasini sat on members' complaints about Employers Mutual throughout the election campaign--and the plan was shut down by regulators a few weeks after the votes were counted.

The vote itself was contested after the UAW funded an NWU video mailed to members that was supposedly aimed at organizing but was timed in a way that benefited Tasini's re-election campaign. In most cases, the video was accompanied by a letter from Elizabeth Bunn, an NWU member who was then a UAW vice president.

When a group of members filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, Tasini and UAW attorney Lowell Peterson intervened in April 2002 to convince the government that the NWU--known as Local 1981 in the UAW--is not a "labor organization" and therefore the Department of Labor has no jurisdiction over the NWU. This is a matter of record, found in Department of Labor memos obtained by NWU activist Jeffrey Perry under the Freedom of Information Act.

Meanwhile, the loss of health care benefits, cynicism over Tasini's maneuvers and the recession contributed to a 25 percent plunge in union membership to just over 4,000. As the 2003 elections neared, Tasini stepped aside in favor of NWU vice president Marybeth Menaker, a former autoworker and union reformer turned UAW loyalist.

At the NWU's Delegate Assembly in September, Menaker pushed through a series of constitutional and bylaw changes with the help of UAW Region 9A Assistant Director Julie Kushner and Gary Bryner, an assistant to UAW President Ron Gettelfinger. Kusher urged delegates to pass a series of measures centralizing the UAW, telling delegates that members weren't interested in the details of union politics.

Bryner asserted that, under the UAW constitution, the membership no longer had the right to vote on dues increases, as was the case under the NWU constitution. Menaker and her allies frankly argued for an elitist, staff-driven "professional" approach to union leadership.

Menaker--who barred critics from the union delegate e-mail list before the election--apparently believed that a snap election would allow her slate to prevail before the opposition could regroup. But outrage over a dues increase instituted without a vote and reports of the UAW's heavy-handed behavior led to a massive backlash--and Working 4 Writers put forward a clear alternative.

"Our platform was also about restoring democracy in the NWU," Colby said. This includes not only upholding the right to ratification of bylaws and dues, but also a commitment by the executive board to carry out decisions of the Delegates' Assembly and support for autonomy of NWU locals (now called "units" under the new bylaws).

The Working 4 Writers slate will take office early in the New Year facing many challenges. But the size of the reformers' victory shows that NWU members are prepared to move in a new direction--one that can rebuild the union from the bottom up.

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