More than 40 free-lance writers who contribute regularly to the L.A. Weekly have authorized the Los Angeles chapter of the National Writers Union to negotiate a contract with the alternative paper to provide for pay increases, standard editorial policies, health benefits and a grievance procedure.
On June 15, the writers elected a four-member negotiating team, which drafted a proposed contract and presented it to Jay Levin, L.A. Weekly’s editor-in-chief. He is expected to meet with the team next month.
If the writers succeed, they apparently would be the first free-lancers to organize at an alternative weekly that is distributed for free.
“It’s clear that one of the fastest-growing sectors in publishing is the weekly newspapers,” said Marc Cooper, a Weekly writer and a member of the negotiating team. “We hope this will serve as a model for other locals in large cities. . . . We want to do this in Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston.”
Levin said recently that he is willing to cooperate, adding: “I’m going to try to help them get a landmark contract for L.A. to give them the basis to negotiate elsewhere.”
The Weekly has about 80 full-time staff members, about half of them on the advertising side, as well as about 70 regular part-time contributors.
Sees Hard Fight
But Writers Union President Andrea Eagan said negotiations with the Weekly will not be easy. “When it comes to the issues that we really care about . . . even management, which is sympathetic or liberal, by and large, fights very hard,” she said.
The 2,500-member National Writers Union, which was formed in 1983, has reached agreements with two national publications--Mother Jones and the Columbia Journalism Review. The local writers have modeled their proposed contract after those agreements, which establish deadlines by which articles should be accepted, clarify copyright issues and guarantee “kill fees” for articles that are commissioned but not used.
The union began organizing the Weekly writers in April. Michael Balter, a member of the negotiating team, said the writers had complained of inconsistencies, including delays in letting them know whether a story would be used and payments for articles.
The main provisions in the proposed contract cover:
Fees. The writers, seeking more consistency, are asking the paper to pay at least 35 cents a word, which would represent a substantial increase. They contend that the fees have varied: from $300 to $1,000 for a cover story, $125 to $250 for an inside feature and $15 to $20 for a capsule review. Levin said that, in determining fees, the Weekly takes into account the amount of work that went into each story.
Assignments. The writers want the publication to outline the terms of each writing assignment in a contract, including the desired length and scope of the article and the due date.
Acceptance. The writers want the paper to tell them of acceptance, rejection or a request for a rewrite within two weeks. Writers would be paid within 10 days of a story’s acceptance.
The proposed contract also calls for the Weekly to defend writers in libel lawsuits, establish a committee to resolve grievances and provide health benefits.
Levin said the paper already complies with many of the requests that the writers are making but is willing to put the policies into writing. But he said that he is not inclined to provide health benefits to part-timers and that he is uncertain about establishing a grievance committee. On the pay issue, Levin said that the 35-cent per-word fee is “beyond what we could afford. I think they know that. But we’ve got to start somewhere.”
The writers, though critical of the paper’s management, said they do not see the negotiations as “adversarial.”
The Weekly is like many of the entertainment and cultural papers that have gained prominence around the country, said Levin, who started the paper 6 1/2 years ago. The paper’s circulation has grown to 150,000.