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Agence France-Presse Branch of the French National CGT Journalists' Union (SNJ-CGT)


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A Redundancy Plan in All but Name

 

Under the grandiose title of "Forward-based management of jobs and skills" (GPEC according to its French initials), AFP Management has for the Nth time affirmed its intention to "implement and follow coherent policies and action plans."

So far, so good: the SNJ-CGT has for years been asking for more coherency in AFP’s human relations management and training initiatives, and notably the end of inequity and the waste of abilities it entails. There’s just one problem however: the GPEC document talks of "changes", of "new job descriptions" and of "adapting" to a situation which it describes as "new", but has nothing to say about either working conditions or careers.

On staffing levels, the text states baldly that: "The expected number of departures due to retirement, given the staff age structure, will go part of the way towards facilitating a renewal, but won’t be enough on its own" (our translation). On the measures envisaged to supplement the "insufficient turnover" in question, the document has nothing to say.

Despite protestations to the contrary by CEO Pierre Louette, what is being considered is clearly a redundancy plan in all but name. During the June 30 Works Committee meeting, Louette explained just what kind of outcome he would favour: one similar to the early departure plan agreed to last year for the technical department, which notably avoided one-for-one replacement of those leaving the company.

All of which leads us to think that the GPEC document may be part of ongoing negotiations between the French government and Management over the famous "Aims and Means Contract" (COM), which have now been dragging on for six months.

In other words, Management is not only proposing to cut overall staffing levels, with older employees being sacrificed on the altar of modernity. It is also seeking increased multitasking and flexibility, boosting productivity in exchange for financial help with the "4XML" technical investment plan.

Referring to the COM negotiations, Management also threw in a pinch of ideological salt by stating in the GPEC document that "We know that the partners with whom we are negotiating the COM are very much aware of the (French government’s) plan to not replace one out of every two departing civil servants."

Already the first COM agreement showed a desire to cut labour costs in order to boost the company’s profit margins. Today, with the second edition, the same approach is being used to justify future job losses, based on a purely bean-counting vision which sets aside the company’s real development needs.

After the loss of around 20 posts among technical staff, and drastic reductions among secretarial and clerical employees, tomorrow all categories will be called on to play their part by accepting reductions in both wages and job opportunities. To justify these cuts, the management’s GPEC text cites figures that are dubious to say the least, notably concerning the real numbers of jobs created thanks to the "35-hour workweek" law. According to the expert appointed by the Works Committee to examine the accounts, the correct figures are as follows, based on the statutory annual labour relations report:

  • 2001: 1,324 permanent HQ status jobs, plus 79 temps (CDD)
  • 2006: 1,331 permanent jobs plus 74 CDD
  • 2007: 1327 permanent jobs plus 63 CDD

Management Hype over New Technologies

Fifteen years after the start of the World Wide Web and over 10 years after the start of the AFP Internet Journal and the "à la Carte" e-mail services — key products to this day, which were fought tooth and nail by management at the time — today’s top people swear that they are completely in tune with the latest high tech developments.

In its latest document, Management notes loftily that "Everything around us is changing: our customers, their business models, their readers, their platforms."

We humble foot-soldiers, who have apparently remained blithely unaware of all this agitation, are urgently invited to "renew our skills," review our "geographical, linguistic and thematic strategic priorities," to "remain in contact with our readers/audience" and to become "mobile journalists". (In the French original the bit about "mobile journalists" is written in English, which for Management is apparently a sign of just how important it is!)

The trendy jargon doesn’t fool us: what we have here is just a new version of the classic "Adapt or Die" of previous management teams.

After all, it is worth asking exactly what technological revolution we are talking about here: to what are we supposed to adapt? It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the current Management is dazzled by passing and generally unprofitable phenomena such as "social networking," "corporate blogging" and "citizen journalism," taking them for major trends which in themselves require a major upheaval in our production processes.

Management stresses the need for an integrated, flexible and multimedia-based editorial system. Fine — but the need for such a system has been obvious since at least the turn of the century. And whose fault is it if it still hasn’t happened? Is it the fault of AFP staff, or that of successive management teams and board members who have watched waves of modernisation fly past their office windows without taking the necessary steps?

The technical integration system known generically as "XML" was invented years before the famous "Web 2.0" phenomenon, which in fact is more a marketing slogan than a real change. Implementation of a system like the future 4XML project requires serious studies, and will necessarily imply changes in the way we journalists work. Indeed those changes have already begun: with the new consoles, we are in fact using XML without realising it.

But when management talks about future integration and modernisation, it would do better to reflect on its own record to date.

For example:

  • Why did they set up a subsidiary to create an expensive software game for a single computer platform ("Facebook") with no prospect of integration into AFP’s wider system? The said application is now slowly drifting into irrelevancy, and it is an open secret that the much-hyped Facebook phenomenon offers no viable business model. Management has yet to explain the huge sums spent on it.
  • Why did they have the General Documentation service set up a multimedia "anniversary" product in French without integrating it into the Agency’s general text system, thereby creating a kind of occult extension of the Multimedia desk?
  • Why create, in similar fashion, a text product in English which short-circuits the normal validation route via the Desks? The "Correspondent" blog product raises serious issues of editorial control, not to speak of content dispersion.
  • Why did management insist on plunging us into the murky waters of "citizen journalism" — which in everyday language means non-professional journalism — despite the fact that the editorial validation process in the Photo Service has already seen a number of lapses?
  • And what about the planned suppression of the Portuguese-language desk in Latin America, to be turned into a multimedia service, with all the risks that raises for the status and conditions of local-status journalists?
For the SNJ-CGT, it is clear that our technical facilities need to change and evolve, but not under the influence of passing fads, and not in a way which serves only as a figleaf for a worsening of our working conditions. All AFP staff have been waiting for years for Management to produce a true development policy. The current team still have some way to go to convince us of either their plans or their methods.

However their desire to undermine our job definitions, our working conditions and our staffing levels is there for all to see, as can be seen from several recent cases concerning local-hire journalists in Latin America. It can also be seen in some of the language they use, for example on the supposed need to "innovate while overcoming the triple constraint of rigid legal provisions, often weighty internal agreements and reflexes which remain too defensive."

To globalise successfully, the agency needs above all to define the main lines of its development, the human resources needed to bring them about and the training projects to back them up. To achieve that, it is high time that a clear editorial and technical project was drawn up. Above all, we do not want to become mere digital operatives who simply put together prefabricated bricks of content. We want to go on playing our full role as a credible international agency by gathering and checking information and then putting it into perspective, with more attention than ever paid to quality.

Staff Determined to Resist

To sum up: there are serious threats to jobs, to working conditions and above all to both the mission and the independence of AFP. The recent attacks made by members of the ruling political party in France, plus the CEO’s announcements about changing our founding statues, are the most striking examples. No doubt management would like to forge ahead quickly with its plans, riding roughshod over the laws, agreements and conventions which govern our operations and whittling away at both working conditions and employee rights.

AFP staff have always risen to the occasion to defend the company when it is attacked or slandered. In the face of all these attacks, be they from inside or outside the agency, staff will always be ready to defend the statutes which underpin our editorial independence.

SNJ-CGT journalists’ union, Paris, July 2, 2008