Look Who’s Talking

The Chicago local of the National Writers Union has finally asked its members what they think about going to war in Iraq. The horse is galloping to catch up with the cart.

In early October the steering committee of the Chicago NWU endorsed a fiery resolution accusing the Bush administration of “seeking any pretext to overthrow the government of a sovereign nation, in violation of international law.” It asserted that a war “would require the re-direction of vital resources and funds to a destructive, senseless, and illegal goal” and would strengthen “an administration that has restricted the civil liberties of its citizens.” It accused the Bush administration of “using the so-called War on Terrorism to distract the American people from the vital issues they confront.”

In September this resolution had been passed by the California Federation of Teachers. Steering-committee member Lee Sustar, who writes for the Socialist Worker newspaper, liked the ring of it and presented it to the committee as a good thing for the NWU to get behind. Sustar thinks of himself primarily as a labor activist, which he’s been for some 20 years, and he’s heartened by signs that organized labor today is much readier to oppose a war than it ever was during the war in Vietnam. He pointed me to “New York City Labor Against the War,” a September declaration that war in Iraq will kill the innocent, strengthen dictatorships, deepen global poverty, “generate further terror in this country against Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, people of color and immigrants, and erode our civil liberties.” It makes the utopian suggestion that “an independent international tribunal…impartially investigate, apprehend and try those responsible for the September 11 attack.”

Apparently dozens and dozens of labor leaders have signed this declaration, including Jonathan Tasini, national president of the NWU. “I disagree with Tasini on just about everything in the union,” Sustar tells me, “but I’m very proud of him for this.”

The chairperson of the NWU steering committee is Helena Worthen, a professor with the University of Illinois’ Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations in Chicago. Worthen personally agrees with the resolution, and in October, with national elections just ahead and the nation already boiling, she believed her union should put itself on record. A quorum of the committee was present, and no one dissented. So without consulting the local membership of about 400 writers, the committee put NWU’s name behind an antiwar statement so ideological it was likely to horrify anyone taking him- or herself halfway seriously as a journalist. Horrify them unreasonably, Sustar would say. As he’d later E-mail me, “The notion that journalists must refrain from expressing political opinions through their unions seems to be a peculiarly American view, based on the myth of an objective media.”

A couple of committee members who hadn’t been at the October meeting found out what had just happened in their absence, believed it had been a mistake, and said so. Tom Gradel, who writes newsletters and video scripts for labor unions, says, “I wrote a memo saying, ‘Gee, if we’re leaders it’s a very good idea to know what the troops are thinking.’ I don’t have a problem with the National Writers Union taking a position, but it’s stupid to take a position without knowing what the members think.”

Worthen was willing to think twice. The steering committee met again in early November and decided to put a finger to the wind. Gradel wrote a series of provocative questions that were E-mailed to the membership in late November and posted on www.nwu-chicago.org. Should a union take a position on the war? Should a union of writers? Should this particular union of writers? Do the members believe that if the union were to take a position it would compromise them professionally? “Do you think the NWU should only speak out on issues that directly affect writers, like censorship, copyrights, free speech, etc.?” he asked, framing the issue in the most tendentious way imaginable. “Or do you believe that writers, like other people, have relatives in the armed services, pay taxes to fund Defense, and have friends in the Middle East, and therefore have a right to speak out?”

About one NWU member in ten weighed in. Their responses have been posted on the union’s Web site, and most tell the union to butt out. Many would fit comfortably under a heading of “Don’t be ridiculous.” One member declared (all responses were posted anonymously unless the member asked to be named), “I absolutely, unequivocally do not want this Steering Committee taking political positions now or ever. I can’t think of a better way to alienate the dwindling membership base.”

Said another, “Taking a position on the war just renders this union all the more pathetic, inept and ludicrous. We want to be known as a hungry gang of tough negotiators, breaking new ground for writers’ rights and helping them to make a living SO THAT THEY CAN EXPRESS THEIR OWN OPINIONS. Piping off on the war just colors us as a ragtag bunch of ineffective social activists.”

“I would be mortified to have an organization I pay dues to thinking it can speak for me on non-job-related issues.”

“We cannot represent journalists while compromising their journalistic ethics.”

“Don’t dilute our energy. Concentrate on our dreadful insurance.”

“If the NWU starts sounding more like a leftie activist group than a mainstream writers’ group, then it will lose credibility and clout.” This member marveled at Gradel’s proposition that writers have as much right as anyone else to speak out because they pay taxes, have friends in the Middle East, and whatnot. “It would take quite a few drinks to be as loaded as this question.”

“This isn’t the 1930’s and we aren’t Tom Jobe [sic]. Focus, people, focus.”

“It’s way too predictable that a ‘union’ would align with the extreme left versus the extreme right, which smacks of political calculation rather than an unbiased stand.”

Some members attacked what they considered the premises of the California resolution. “I’m sick and tired of seeing the nation that is still the last best hope for humanity being constantly trashed by a counter-dependent bunch of spoiled brats,” someone wrote. Another: “I still remember 9/11.” And another: “I would personally be opposed to any group I was a member of verbally opposing the work that President Bush is doing in the Middle East. I support his decisions.” Yet another: “Despite what the radical left believes, the September 11th attacks were not ‘something we deserved’ for our Israel/Palestine policy.”

One member wished there’d been a question explicitly asking for an opinion on the California Federation of Teachers resolution. “I do not believe the ‘War on Terrorism’ is merely ‘so-called.'” And someone wrote, “I’M FOR A WAR WITH IRAQ!!!”

But some of the other responses reminded me of a moment 32 years ago. The American invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970 had been followed by the Kent State shootings, and at that point college students across the country went on strike. I happened to sit in on the meeting where the journalism school faculty of the University of Missouri appealed to its students to stay in class. It was a confrontation notable for the argument no one made–that it was insane for aspiring journalists possessed of a truth that must be told to resort to bullhorns and leaflets when they had at their disposal a daily city newspaper published by the school. But this paper wasn’t actually open to what the students had to say. Answerable to trustees and legislators with no sympathy for the anarchic hooligans infesting the state university, the Columbia Missourian laid low. The strike was an occasion it didn’t rise to.

To be a writer, even a journalist, is no guarantee that when you raise your voice anyone will hear it. Sure enough, a couple of the responses to Gradel’s questionnaire advised NWU members to simply go out and do what they do. “I don’t think we would be saying ANYTHING if we just said we don’t want a war with Iraq. Like, duh,” said one. “My guess is that our opinions would come out in a thousand tongues–so let us take our opinions elsewhere and write, write, write.” Another barked: “Don’t cower behind the union–just get your butt out there! You’re a writer!…Write a book about how you feel–fiction it up, do it as a what-if, make your characters as nasty and angry as you want and get this ‘union against war’ idea out of your head and onto paper.”

Go for it! Get your book written, published, and on the best-seller list by Christmas. Journalists make up one NWU division among many. Other members are fiction writers, technical writers, cartoonists, and poets. Aside from the College of Complexes, which meets at the Lincoln Restaurant on Saturday nights, where could any of them individually go to speak out and be heard? “Silence in this case will be considered tacit approval [of war],” wrote an NWU member.

“It’s been really distressing to me that, unlike the early 1970’s, writers and artists have been passing up opportunities to make a meaningful protest.”

“We have a moral obligation to speak.”

“Citizen passivity is already getting us into greater state control and this is one way Hitler came into power.”

“All the other considerations are secondary to raising our voice against the war.”

I wish the NWU had left the California resolution alone, but I won’t fault the logic of any writer who agrees with Sustar that the collective voice is the only voice anyone might pay attention to. And among the writers, only journalists would have a de facto ethical problem with raising it.

Sustar and Gradel have been given the job of collecting and reviewing the responses to the questionnaire. “Once we sit down and do that we’ll decide how to proceed,” says Sustar, who wants something to come of this exercise. Gradel doesn’t. “I’m happy that people became aware that the members are divided on this, and it’s probably not a wise thing to do anything else,” he says. “So I doubt anything else will be done.”

Wrangling Writers

As an academic, Helena Worthen seems an unlikely person to head a writers’ union and an unlikely judge of how writers react to things done in their name. “I started out as a novelist,” she told me, when I wondered what she was doing in NWU at all. “Then I wrote a number of plays, and then I wrote a number of academic papers.” In the early 1980s she published two novels. “I was a very naive young woman in California, miles and miles from New York City, and I had a hotshot New York agent and a hotshot New York publisher. I felt absolutely powerless dealing with these publishers. I had no idea what you could bargain for. When I actually went to New York and was met by these beautifully dressed women with gorgeous jewelry and gorgeous hairdos I was totally intimidated. They said, ‘Let’s throw a party. Who do you want to come?'”

Worthen had no idea. She was in way over her head.

“The two things that happened because I didn’t know what to ask for was that the titles of my novels got changed. I was so angry I could hardly utter the words. The first one–which takes place in Israel at the time when Israel becomes very militarized after the Six Day War–my title was ‘Commemoration of the Martyrs.’ Which was an ironic title. They changed it to Perimeters, a word that was absolutely meaningless to me. The second one was also ironic, ‘Mary Job’–about a woman who kills her father and gets away with it. They changed it to Damages, which is not an ironic title.

“So these two books came out on the market, and I walked away from them. It was like they didn’t belong to me anymore.”

Worthen got upset just remembering the experience. It’s why she later joined the NWU, and why she spent years as a grievance officer and contract adviser. She doesn’t need the union these days, but she thinks it needs her. “I ran for chair because I was asked to, and because I supposedly know a little something about trying to hold an organization together.”

Membership is dropping, and the NWU is splintering–and not because of an antiwar resolution. The biggest reason writers joined the union in the first place was to acquire affordable health insurance, and a year ago NWU’s provider went bankrupt. The only plan the union can offer at the moment requires members to subscribe as individuals–at the kind of cost they joined NWU to avoid.

I asked Worthen what the steering committee was thinking back in October when it endorsed the California resolution. What impact did anyone think the endorsement was going to have? She said she wasn’t sure. “I think the discussion among the members will actually have a lot greater impact,” she said. “I think the membership doesn’t really understand who each other is. There are a lot of people working at home or in offices by themselves, isolated. Figuring out their common interests is a big part of making the union work.”

Trying to get writers to do anything together is “a bit like herding cats,” she says. “And they do tend to think that writing is the same as action.”

And it isn’t?


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.