This is not a post about SFWA. It mostly isn’t a post about SFWA because I haven’t belonged for (I think) two and a half years, and had shrugged off in despair long before that.
It’s not that I don’t get the rumblings of exactly what is going on there. I do. Tons of my friends are still members, and honestly, I’d laugh over the whole “is raising the rate targeting minority writers.” I’d laugh, but it’s too sad to. It’s also inevitable.
I’m not a labor historian. I don’t have time to research this topic in depth, because as you all know, I make very little money from this blog (and honestly, to my subscribers, I will do my best to provide more goodies, particularly reading stuff in the subscriber page. I’ve been terrible at it, because the idea was to put up what I was prepping for indie publishing, and, other than novels [and I’ll send final eversions of those out soon to those subscribing above the $100 level] I haven’t put anything up in a while, between getting sick and trying to finish in contract work.)
I’m sure I have labor historians among my readers and if they want to point out inaccuracies, that’s fine, though at the level I’m going to be generalizing there are always inaccuracies, but those aren’t usually relevant.
I’m going with both my 30 year old knowledge of labor history from school, and my knowledge of general history and conditions.
If what I understand is true, organized labor flourished when unskilled and semi-skilled laborers, available in great numbers, joined together to demand living wages which would not otherwise be paid.
There are certain holes in the logic and reasoning there, because this is presented in schools as a “shoulder to shoulder” and “everyone together” thing, but it couldn’t have been. Take for instance high-immigration, early 20th century NYC. If the union guys were striking there would always be fresh replacements off the boat, and why didn’t the bosses hire those?
As anyone who has tried to run the tea stand at a book sale knows, getting everyone to “stand together” against their self interest has all the functional practicality of a hard candy computer.
Of course, I know more that I wasn’t taught in school. I’ve heard from friends whose parents were in, or refused to join unions, about threats and even violence against those who wouldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder.
More, from sometime in the thirties the unions were infiltrated by communist front groups. This meant they had ready muscle when needed.
But even before communists were around, unions, leagues, trade-associations, were always a thing of force and forced conformity. They were in fact not so much an association of happy-go-lucky fellows who all happened to wish to better their condition, shoulder to shoulder, at the same time, while singing beautiful songs, but sort of a micro government within a trade – capable of making things happen because they could bring on the force not only against the people who might be exploiting the work, but against their fellow workers, too.
The apprentices in Elizabethan England were feared because they were quite likely to riot and break their masters’ equipment. Not to say that they didn’t have reason to. If you worked in the conditions they did, you’d riot too (though consider that it’s not that strange in early emerging industrial economies, and that young men flocked to the cities to apprentice, because it was better than living in the country.) They rioted in groups, despite the fact that a lot of them were hanged. And it might have helped their living and work conditions, who knows. I mean, those who survived. The ones who were hanged were definitely out of trouble.
Of course, apprentice leagues and labor leagues also offered security to their members by coming down hard on anyone who tried to practice the trade without being a member.
Pratchett captures this beautifully with the thieves league, who are the best police the city could want, since they will kill any unlicensed thief.
At the same time the smart labor organizations certified their members, and had levels you went through to be considered for certain jobs, which, if kept true (and for a long time they were, though with service workers now… never mind) provided the employer with a guarantee of quality. If you were hiring a level three whatever, certified as such by the union, you knew he would be able to spaz the whatzits at a very minimum.
At any rate, in the States the heyday of labor movements seems to have been in those times and places where the abuses were great and the labor force otherwise powerless, so that they had to stick to the union as their only hope of survival. The union provided a bolster against competition, certification levels, and often loans or help when you were unemployed, in a time when social services were otherwise lacking.
Well and good. Against that framework, one endured the threats if one went against the union and also vague rumors of stuff happening to scabs and line breakers.
I’m not going to argue on whether unions were needed, or whether those things they secured, like the 40 hour work week would have come about anyway through competition and the free market. Maybe they would have. Or maybe not. If one starts arguing what might have happened if one hadn’t done x or y, one can convince oneself that if the US had sat on its hands during WWI and let Europe become the Kaiser’s problem forever, we could have avoided a great deal of trouble in the twentieth century and not have ended up with a world much different than it is today. On the other hand that type of backwards projection never accounts for you know, the German going ahead with eugenics programs in Europe (which could very well have happened, given the ideas at the time.)
And though normally things move towards greater power/well being for workers, I do know – I have reason to know – that employers will exploit employees (and contractors) when they can. And that abuses will go unpunished and will spread, if there is no effective workers’ organization.
The problem we have is that the labor organizations as constituted are actually counterproductive or totally ineffective. Take, for instance the Teachers Union, which seems to mostly forbid the firing of ineffective teachers and mandate the jumping through hoops to even take the certification exam. It is counterproductive both in results, and by lowering confidence in its certifications and levels. It might succeed in raising the salary of individual teachers and in keeping them in jobs, but it is ultimately killing the golden goose, by forcing people to find alternative methods of schooling their kids.
Then there are organizations like SFWA which are about as effective as wet tissue paper. The reason for this is that they are in the exact opposite situation of that in which labor organizations are effective. Or not quite, but close enough.
Let’s take the situation as it was before indie opened up the market. You had six big publishers and a WIDELY distributed labor force, with not only varying but unclassifiable levels of attainment and ability, not to mention areas of focus, connections, etc.
What this meant is that the things SFWA SHOULD have been doing, it couldn’t do. Because most of the leaders – if not all – were working writers, it couldn’t do things like class action suits and demanding to see the accounting of the big houses, because the leaders would be out of a job forever. There were very few employers and they all talked to each other.
Ask any working writer about his statements, and they’ll roll their eyes. I have a house, for instance, which still hasn’t reverted two of my books with them, which has quantum print runs. No, seriously. The initial number of books printed changes according to what they want to claim in the statement. (Yes, as soon as Dan has a week he’ll do an analysis of the incongruousness in those statements and I’ll publish it here.) When I mention that house to other writers, they say “Oh, yes, they’re famed for this.”
But has SFWA ever taken a stand and questioned their statements? Heaven forfend. For one, the publisher is a member. For another, well… none of the leaders or the members want to be sidelined forever. And the way books are bought, writers never have job security.
Then there are the schreklish clauses that have crept into contracts, including the funny, funny ones that give the publisher the right to anything you ever wrote under any name, including your own blog. What you hear is that they are “standard practice” and you have to sign or walk. Where is SFWA in that?
Well, again, there are only six (now five) houses and the leaders and membership work for them. And keep in mind that a writer can be fired for any reason or none, under the excuse the book did not sell (without taking in account cover, distribution or anything.)
Would you, if you were SFWA, stick your neck out? I wouldn’t. I didn’t, when I had to work for publishers-other-than-Baen.
Then there is what happened to the pay rates over the last fifty years, but like Mark Twain in Connecticut Yankee, when he starts with “And if the peasant had a daughter” I weary of telling this stuff, because, really, what could we do about it? Also, some things are too dreary to even tell.
The only stick SFWA ever wielded was to consider publications either pro or not, based on what they paid. It was a weak and ineffective stick by the time I came on the scene, since there were so few and so short lived magazines that beginning writers worked for what they had to. (Yours truly made ¼ of a cent a word for more than a year.)
And then we got indie. And the shell cracked loose.
What we have now is almost exactly the opposite of a situation in which unions help. Instead of having a few concentrated employers, a large and uneducated workforce, a geographically concentrated area in which strong arm tactics and strikes work… you have a largely educated work force, which can choose to work for itself and is spread all over the entire world.
How can a professional organization demand higher pay – from whom? – help with job security, or otherwise secure better conditions for its members?
It can’t. It was never particularly effective at it, because the conditions weren’t right for its model. And now it can’t at all because the conditions are the opposite of the ones in which they could be effective.
So they really can’t do anything but ONE thing – the one arm of force left to them is force over their own members – hence the continuing purges and fights over discrimination which become more fantastical and strange as the saner membership flees (and yes, scary as it may seem for a writer I come close to being sane as a brick.)
But, since, due to spread out work force they can’t use physical force, the only thing they can use is shaming, mau-mauing and verbal bullying. Which by definition favors the insaner members.
All of which brings us to the sad state of labor. Because where SFWA has gone now, everyone in any profession that doesn’t manipulate heavy materials or require physical presence is going. That is, everyone in the white collar professions (and a few of the blue collar, as automation progresses and can be remote-controlled.)
Have we gone to a post-labor world? Are organizations of people in the same profession outdated?
I don’t think so. First of all, abuses will happen and a lot of them will be in legislation. The doctrine of first sale being changed by law will destroy the ability of any writer to make a living in electronic media. We need to know what’s happening. We need to make sure lawmakers know what they’re doing and how many people they’re pissing off. We need organization and numbers to carry this off.
Second because even the most haphazard and distributed profession (I won’t claim mine is, but surely we come close) needs a way for members to contact other members and learn of new opportunities, fast in a new world in which distributed information, personal networking and staying abreast of fast-changing technology.
Also, in a profession, like ours, in which I THINK at this point a majority of practitioners are childless and aging, and in which, due to the nature of the beast, many of us go through periods of unemployment that doesn’t count as such legally, a mutual beneficial support organization is not without merit.
And that too might not be a bad model for other unions, or whatever you want to call them in the future – an organization that helps people find job opportunities (I always knew that in writing, but apparently studies have shown the biggest difference in any profession – bigger than your competence – in how well you do is your social network. Who you know), that points them at ways to acquire new skills, that arranges for help in dire times, that allows you to communicate with other people who might have your problems very quickly and to form the equivalent of a flash mob when your interests are threatened. That might work.
As would warnings about organizations that have shady practices and doubtful contracts (though frankly that never worked very well with SFWA. Oh, sure, they went after egregious places like Publish America, but the shady practices of the mainstream went untouched, because, of course, members had to work for them.)
If this glimmer of an idea of what the future might bring I have is true, where even present-in-person jobs go to contractor models which means that people relocate in wildly fast rotations all over the country, having the local equivalent of a professional welcome-wagon might not hurt either.
It’s just an idea. And it might never work for SFWA. G-d knows, I don’t have time to do anything, not even help the people who are trying to do it, and also, frankly, the individualists are failing to organize, while the crazies are just interested in insane stuff.
But it might work for other professions.
Because the era of shoulder to shoulder, to the extent it ever worked is gone.
Outside of the most basic service professions, you can’t strike and force the hand of the employers (and at that level, like fast food I’d question striking in this particular economic climate and with automation JUST at hand.) And in any white collar profession, you’re not going to manage to exert physical force on your members (and if you did, it would be terrible public relations. People believe the shoulder to shoulder about unions, see. You practice violence and you won’t be a labor hero but a villain.) All you’re going to manage is finger pointing, shaming and mau-mauing, which in turn will encourage the worst crazies in your group and drive everyone else away.
If you cling to the old model, you will in fact eat yourself.
My guess is that trade associations will emerge in a more functional form more or less spontaneously, but that is probably because I don’t want to get roped into designing one, and besides even with design, this is not likely to happen in the next 30 years – that is the extent of my working life, more or less.
And yet, as sure as the fire will burn, there will be abuses and those least powerful will need protecting.
I can’t do anything – or much – other than push towards what the needs are and what we need, and hope that a hundred unorganized, voluntary organizations pick it up.
And ignore the old model. It might not know it, but it’s a dead model walking, and the unpleasant eructations emerging from it are just what you expect from a corpse.