This blog was originally published in the EFA newsletter The Freelancer in February 2020.
Looking at the current EFA, it is hard to imagine that the organization started out as a small group of political radicals meeting to support organizing a labor union of publishing workers.
The mythology of the EFA’s origin is that we started as a group supporting the striking employees of Grove Press in 1970. Well, yes and no. Yes, the founders of the EFA were all involved in those strike support actions in 1970. The problem is that about a half-dozen different organizations can trace their roots to those meetings. All the other organizations were political, and most were ad hoc and had brief life expectancies. I may not be remembering the exact names of these organizations, but they included Publishing Workers Against the War in Vietnam, the Publishers Committee for the Impeachment of Richard Nixon and several other groups long forgotten.
The meetings that specifically led to the formation of an organization of freelancers started a bit later, around 1974, but did involve many of the same people.
The meetings supporting the Grove Press strike of 1970 included in-house workers, authors, freelancers and others (outside the publishing industry) who felt a strong political commitment to organizing everybody in the publishing industry.
To digress a bit, the Grove Press strike was not simply a matter of conflicts between workers and their bosses, but involved at least three factions among the workers, with different analyses and demands, which sometimes coalesced and other times conflicted with each other. There were Grove Press workers who just wanted a better deal from their big leftist publisher and made traditional economic demands. There were also feminists, including Robin Morgan, a former Grove Press employee as well as a best-selling author, who wanted to see Grove Press publications present a more-feminist analysis and less pornography. Then there were the cultural revolutionaries, with an analysis that was completely different from those of the other two factions.
The lines between these three groups were not always clear, and some individuals straddled the ideological lines between them. These different factions of Grove Press workers were reflected in the group supporting the strike.
By 1974, the ad hoc committees opposing the Vietnam War and supporting the impeachment of Nixon had come and gone, but the group of publishing workers continued to meet and centered around freelancers, not staff employees.
The four women credited with being EFA’s founding mothers were Faith Sale, Louise Stallard, Mary Heathcote and Margaret Wolf. Cicely Nichols joined soon after. All five were self-consciously political, with strong leftist backgrounds and experience in the civil rights, antiwar and labor movements. Others soon joined the group; most, but not all, from the same left backgrounds. Later additions included Mary Barnett and Jeannine Ciliotta, neither of whom were political.
While these women, and others in the early group, all shared common values, they had major disagreements over strategy.
In the early years (1974–February 1977), the group of freelancers did not have a name and met secretly. New members were recruited only by invitation. One of the major disagreements was over whether the group should announce its existence publicly. There was good reason for the secrecy: Blacklists still existed in the industry — this writer was blacklisted after the failed strike at Macmillan in 1974 — and going public meant a risk of exposing all the members to potential blacklisting and other sanctions. The group prepared a mimeographed list of members and circulated it at each meeting, but marked it “confidential.”
The meetings eventually became too large for the living rooms of the group’s founders. I believe it was around 1976 that meetings moved to local churches, starting with St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery (on Second Avenue and East 10th Street in Manhattan). The first meeting I attended, in October 1976, was held there, and Nichols was one of two main speakers. The other was her Legal Services attorney, who represented her in her claim for unemployment insurance after McGraw-Hill had stopped sending her freelance editing assignments.
Nichols was denied the compensation when she applied for unemployment insurance; then, she appealed the decision to a New York State Department of Labor appeals board, which ruled in her favor. While the appeals board decision benefited her, it did not set a precedent and didn’t directly help anyone else. Very simply, decisions of the New York State Department of Labor appeals board do not set or follow precedents.
Even without a name or any bylaws, the secret organization of freelancers had something of a structure and regular meetings; lots of meetings; too many meetings. First, there were the monthly membership meetings, with a speaker or panel of speakers; then, the members would break down into small groups for more-personal discussions. The group each person attended was determined semi-randomly by a card they received from a deck of playing cards distributed at the beginning of the meeting. It was prearranged that at least one experienced member was in each small group. There was always somebody to initiate new members into the group.
Programs for the monthly membership meetings were determined by a Planning Committee, which also met once a month. Membership in the Planning Committee was open to everybody.
There also were committees for Benefits, Publications and Structure (which I chaired), each with its own schedule of regular meetings. An active member of the group could attend three or four different meetings each month.
By February 1977, it was decided that the whole organization should decide what the group’s name should be and whether it should go public. We voted on these issues at a general monthly meeting. The Editorial Freelancers Association became the name, and we decided to announce our existence to the outside world.
The group started to grow very quickly. Some of the tactical differences that had been in the group all along caused some friction at Planning Committee and Structure Committee meetings.
While everybody in the group seemed to agree that we needed to have some “clout” in the industry, exactly what that meant and how it could be achieved was in dispute. Some members wanted the EFA to eventually become a union of freelancers, while others saw it as being a professional association. I don’t think anyone opposed the idea of a union, but many, including me, feared that we did not have enough support to move quickly in that direction.
Later in 1977, the EFA split into two organizations, with Faith Sale and Margaret Wolf (both former Grove Press employees), along with David Sachs (who had been a teacher, then an editor at Macmillan who was fired during the 1974 strike there), splitting off from the EFA to form a new group with a similar name, Freelance Editorial Workers Association, Inc. (FEWA). They made some grandiose promises (including a health plan that could cover freelancers all over the United States). That splinter group did not last long, vanishing after holding only two or three meetings.
The EFA was now on the road to becoming a professional association, not a union.
In retrospect, the fears of EFA’s founders — that there was a risk of possible retaliatory actions against the membership once we went public — were misplaced. The EFA started to grow and has continued to thrive over its 45-year (or 49-year) history.
EFA: Twenty-Five Years of Service to the Editorial Profession, published by the EFA in 1995. Pages 7–10 contain a very brief history of the EFA by Martin Kohl.
The Freelancer, September–October 2006 (Vol. 31, No. 1), “How We Began,” by Trumbull Rogers, pages 3 and 7; “A Tribute to Cicely Nichols,” by Elliot Linzer, page 7.
Elliot Linzer earns his living as a freelance indexer. He has been a member of the EFA since 1976. His life has been one of political involvement: He served on the national staff of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963; was a draft resister during the Vietnam War; and is currently active in Science for the People.