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Industrial relations at AFP: Let’s Open Up the Debate!

Friday 8 October 2010

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The SUD-AFP trade union is at the same time pleased and very, very concerned at the recent series of messages signed by staff from AFP’s main regions around the world.
We are pleased because we have long believed that union-management relations in a worldwide news agency should embrace all staff, independently of contract status and place of employment. Although the French-based unions legally represent only staff subject to French labour law, ie HQ status employees, many of the decisions made in our statutory bodies, notably the Works Committee (Comité d’entreprise, or CE) and the Health and Safety Committee (CHSCT) affect staff all over the world.
At first view, this may appear not to be the case with the transfer of certain services across the street from the Paris HQ building; and indeed if all that is at stake is a simple house-moving operation - as management would apparently like you to think - one might wonder what all the fuss is about.
In fact the issue is far more complex than that, involving not only the introduction of multimedia technology but also the cohesion of certain services, not to mention past and present threats against AFP’s founding statutes.
These may seen theoretical when viewed from the other side of the world, but they are in reality extremely important for all of us.

Representing staff all over the world

More generally, we should also add that as union reps, many of us act and will continue to act to defend local staff, both individually and collectively as far as we are able.
There is an obvious linkage between working conditions - wages, hours, job security, etc. - for HQ status staff and those of local-status employees. Recently, AFP management has launched attacks on both: refusing to deal with the growing problem of precarious labour contracts covered by French laws, and also cutting down on freelance budgets all around the world, as well as simply sacking local hires, as occurred in Sarajevo last year, for example. It is also worth noting that there is a growing contingent of French nationals among local hires. We believe AFP staff all over the world should have the same rights.

Towards a World Works Committee? 

The fact that staff worldwide, including many local hires, are suddenly taking an interest in issues which have previously been mostly discussed and resolved in France, and mainly in Paris, is in itself a good thing.
One such issue which SUD-AFP has already raised, is the way in which staff representatives are elected to the AFP board of governors. While this is the only statutory election in which non-HQ-status employees are allowed to vote, the electorate in fact excludes everybody who is not a national of a European Union state, or of a few other countries which make up the European Economic Area.
SUD has already won a ruling on this issue, from France’s HALDE anti-discrimination watchdog. We hope that in the next election, due early in 2011, all staff around the world will have a voice.
Since the current management has apparently inspired, not to say requested, the current series of signed messages about decisions being taken by the Health and Safety Committee, it will no doubt view favourably our request to set up some broader form of worldwide structure on which AFP staff could be represented and express their views. Why not a World Works Committee, with a role for union or staff reps from each region? Such structures already exist in some other firms.
At the same time, the form taken by the current barrage of signed messages from around the world explains why we are very, very concerned, not to say very, very angry. 

What is the legitimacy of messages inspired and even written by members of regional management, and which staff have been asked to sign?

We are willing to believe that many of the signatures were given freely - even though we are somewhat bemused to see that just because the CEO issued a long, rambling message in which he threatened to resign, staff all around the world suddenly find themselves called upon to express an opinion on complex issues that have been under discussion in Paris for over a year, without much information being available in any language other than French.
But we are also sure, given the nature of hierarchical relations in any company, that a number of people must have felt unable to refuse to sign such messages. How can we know?

Democratic legitimacy

Such practices are in stark contrast to the strict democratic conditions under which the staff who are directly concerned by the move to new premises in Rue Vivienne, and only those staff, are currently being asked to vote by the unions.
More generally, they are also in contrast to the regulations laid down in French labour law for union representation; regulations which many a country could envy, and which we are sworn to defend.
If we have to choose between an AFP in which labour and management can hold dialogue in conditions of fairness and transparency, and one in which impromptu petitions are launched by management just because the CEO has flown into a temper, it shouldn’t be difficult to decide which outcome is preferable!
Well: we’ve gone on long enough. Anyone who wishes to pursue this conversation is welcome to contact us at sudafp@orange.fr. You can also directly contact all the French unions via the address inter[AT]afp.com. NB: the latter address is only accessible from “afp.com” e-mail accounts.
A translation of our reply to the CEO’s resignation threat, published in French yesterday, will follow, as will a French translation of the present text.

Claus Tulatz, SUD-AFP Union Representative
 - David Sharp, elected member of the AFP works committee
SUD-AFP union, Paris, Friday October 8, 2010