by Monica Chamness
Where do writers go for help with troublesome publishers? If they are freelance writers, they can enlist the aid of the National Writers Union. One local union member, Lloyd Lemons, volunteers as a grievance officer to facilitate the process for members nationwide.
“When a writer has a problem with a publisher involving a contract dispute or illegal use of their work, the officer works to resolve these issues so it’s not necessary to go to court,” said Lloyd Lemons. “There are a lot of contract disputes going on, especially in the digital age.”
The union has established a division devoted to business, instructional, technical and electronic writers. For example, a company cannot use hard copy text on its website without the writer’s permission.
“There’s also non-payment grievances, short payment grievances and poor business practices such as when a publisher promises publication of a piece within a certain time frame but then doesn’t print it. This creates a problem for the writer by tying up their income because he can’t sell it anywhere else. There’s a whole host of problems.”
Grievance officers are trained by the union in the basics of copyright law so they may serve as an intermediary for members. Three to four times a year, a workshop is offered in different locations throughout the nation to prepare members for the role of officer. Lemons is an at-large local, which means the membership of the geographic area in which he operates is not well-defined enough to be self-operating, therefore, he helps any members in the National Writers Union regardless of where they are located. Lemons has resided in Jacksonville for a little under two years.
“Often, the trainers are legal professionals within the organization,” said Lemons. “Grievance officers are not legal advisors. We’re just trying to give the writer a fair shake. I wouldn’t get involved in advising someone whether to sue or with someone already in litigation. That’s beyond our scope.”
Each officer handles an average of three to four cases each month. There are approximately 200 officers and each case is assigned to a particular grievance officer.
An NWU member for five years, Lemons has been in the writing industry for 22 years as a professional copywriter, business writer and marketing consultant. He has written a number of articles and profiles and is working on a self-improvement book regarding the integration of work and life. For busy executives, Lemons has ghostwritten articles for consumer and trade periodicals.
“I’ve been burned many times and the union has helped me out,” explained Lemons of why he volunteered to be an officer. “New authors are blown away when they’re taken advantage of.
“The procedure is to get as much information from the writer as possible. We look over the contract and review the dispute objectively. We encourage them to always have a contract. If the writer is off base, we’ll tell them that. But if there is a problem, we’ll approach the publisher on the writer’s behalf. You try to negotiate but there are times when you can’t come to an agreement. Sometimes it’s just a misunderstanding; sometimes they just don’t want to pay [for the work] or want to use the copy in more ways than the writer contracted for. Other times they take it without telling anybody, which is downright illegal.”
Founded in 1981, the credo of the NWU is strength in numbers. The group affiliated with the United Auto Workers in 1992. With 6,000 members, NWU is united for mutual support. On top of grievance resolution, the union also provides members with group health care, professional development seminars, press passes, a national job hotline, access to trade databases, newsletters and networking opportunities.
“Freelance writers are traditionally not treated well,” said Lemons. “Before the union, writers had to go to battle for themselves and got walked all over. A few years ago, we won a legal contest against Time-Warner in New York. Since then, publishers are listening to us a little more. We’re fairly successful with our grievances.”