Union History: A True Story
by former NWU President Alec Dubro
Every organization has an official history and a secret history. This is the secret true history of the National Writers Union.
July 1981. A hot, humid, summer evening on New York’s Lower East Side. A group of ill-paid, ill-housed, ill-dressed left-wing writers gathered at the famed Katz delicatessen, unaware that a decade later Meg Ryan would be faking an orgasm for Hollywood at that very same table.
The talk was the usual: Was the brisket really as good as the corned beef, and did Langer’s in LA really have a better pastrami?
Halfway through the meal, one writer, whose name was not even recorded, although it was probably Howie or Mark or Dina, asked offhandedly, “How can we live as writers if even our best work gets a 30 percent kill fee?”
“What, you get 30 percent,” said another. “New Times gave me just 20 percent.”
“You get a kill fee? Seven Days sent me a Chapter 11 notice!”
“You get a notice? Sundance won’t even answer the phone.”
“Your magazine has a phone?”
And so on.
From that dinner and the heartburn and remorse that followed, an idea was born: writers needed help and only writers would give them that help. Sure, there were many people who said they wanted to help: editors, publishers, agents, lawyers, teachers, booksellers, foundations. But writers then had to ask, “If they’re helping us, how come they all make a living and we don’t?”
The answer was provided by one of the keenest minds in political economy, professor Sylvia N’Draguna of the Esola Novella. “You’re exploited,” she said. As the writers gathered unto her and beseeched her for a guiding light, a shred of wisdom that would lighten their plight.
“Well,” she said,” I’m not really a guru or anything. But throughout the world, the best remedy for exploitation is a trade union.” And the writers answered, “It can’t be that simple, can it?”
She just smiled and went back to exploiting graduate students, whose one organizing drive had yet to begin.
And that fall, at the American Writers Congress in New York City, 600 writers overflowed a room meant for 60, breaking the city’s fire laws and demanding a union. For the rest, see the official history.
And that’s how it happened. I swear.