#PayTheWriters: Join a union, go to court and other strategies to get paid

By Liza Gross

Freelancers got some great news at #SciWri18.

Starting early next year, NASW members can join the National Writers Union for just $150 a year, Kendall Powell announced at the "How to get paid" panel in Washington, D.C.

Emily Anthes, Katherine Bourzac, Jessica Siegel, Yael Grauer, Adrienne Samuel Gibbs, John Mason

Emily Anthes, Katherine Bourzac, Jessica Siegel, Yael Grauer, Adrienne Samuel Gibbs, John Mason (Kendall Powell photo)

NWU's work is "as close as it gets to collective bargaining for freelancers," said Powell, an NASW board member and Freelance Committee co-chair. Membership fees for NWU — a local union of the United Auto Workers — normally run between $150 and $400 a year depending on income.

Twenty-five NASW members who can document their case will also have access to NWU's grievance services without having to join.

When the online magazine Nautilus refused to pay its freelancers, they sought help from the NWU. Publisher John Steele stalled unpaid writers, including panelist Jessica Siegel, with endless promises of checks that never materialized. When Steele told Siegel that he’d just use people who were willing to write for free, she started organizing. She appealed to Binders Full of Science Writers on Facebook and immediately heard from women in the same boat. They quickly came up with a strategy, following labor organizing principles: personal interaction, creation of community, common goals and a sense of group identity. All told, 27 freelancers were owed nearly $73,000. With the NWU’s help, they’ve received more than half of what they were owed, Siegel said.

Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, a Chicago-based writer and editor, had to resort to a class-action lawsuit after Ebony refused to pay nearly $300,000 to all the contractors she hired for special issues. The suit ultimately asked for $80,000 because most people didn’t sign on for fear of being labeled troublemakers, Gibbs said.

When Gibbs learned that Ebony wasn't sending subscribers the magazine, she tagged advertisers on Twitter to let them know they weren't getting what they'd paid for. Look for #EbonyOwes on Twitter and Instagram and you'll see the "entire three-year saga," she said.

Gibbs now adds a line to her contracts to protect herself: "Writer retains copyright if not paid within 30 days of submission of article." Just make sure you get a signed copy, she said. Even if the outlet reneges, they can't republish your piece.

When Yael Grauer's client asked her to stop work on a manual she'd been writing for him, she told him she'd bill him for the work she'd finished. "You didn't provide me with any services," he replied. "Good luck with your bill-sending exercise."

Grauer, an independent journalist then based in Minnesota, took him to small claims court. When the client noted in an email that she didn't have a contract, she used that as evidence. "Always send past due notices certified mail in case they pretend they didn't get it," she said. Grauer finally got what he owed her, along with a touch of Schadenfreude: After her client lost his job as CEO, she asked the new CEO for unpaid court fees, and he sent her a check.

If you don't have the inclination to go to court, consider Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts' pro bono services. VLA considers writers artists, said John Mason, who owns Copyright Counselors, and helps with collection and contract disputes and copyright issues, Mason said. And try to leverage your power as a writer. Condition use of your content on payment, for example, by adding, "If I'm not paid, you cease the right to use my story." If an outlet insists on retaining copyright, said panel co-organizer Emily Anthes, insist on a higher rate.

Writers working for outlets with an office in New York that fail to pay have a powerful resource in the Freelance Isn't Free Act. File a complaint with the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs along with proof of nonpayment and the office sends a "sternly worded" letter that requires a response in 30 days, Anthes said. An NASW member in Nashville filed a complaint and got his check "almost immediately."

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