The Writers Guild: A Model for Unions?

The role of labor unions in our workplaces has become a topic of discussion as state governments curtail the power of public-sector unions and workers push back. Apart from these battles, I admit that I often think of unions as hailing from a bygone era, disconnected from the work that I do.

Lowell Peterson argues to the contrary in an AlterNet editorial. The executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, believes that the WGAE could serve as a model for other unions as our economy transitions from a manufacturing base to an information economy.

I think our success rests on our ability to be both a traditional, militant union whose members are willing and able to strike and, at the same time, a guild that offers a sense of community and professional solidarity. Both are important. We are very good at negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining agreements (although the Great Recession and the transformation of some parts of our industry have made this more challenging than ever). Members like being part of the Writers Guild both because it fights for their interest and because it demonstrates that they have achieved a level of professional and creative success. It links them to other people with a passion to create, to tell stories, to present news and public affairs in reliable and compelling ways, to make people laugh or cry or think.

It’s an interesting suggestion, but as Peterson points out, the WGAE and other unions have significant work to do in expanding their ranks—just ten percent of private-sector workers in the U.S. belong to unions. Peterson’s argument for the effectiveness of the WGAE’s “economic solidarity” seems thin in this article, considering that he bypasses specific examples of how the Guild’s bargaining has aided its members. (The headline-grabbing 2007–08 strike must be the most recent high-profile case.) And as for the cultural solidarity, freelance writers may be able to find that in any number of other personal or professional groups apart from unions, whether online or in local face-to-face meetups, networking events or the like.

As a non-union freelancer, I’m curious to hear from you about the value of unions. Should I join one? Should you? Share your thoughts, pro or con, in the comments.

Photo via John Edwards 2008.