Sygma snappers’ strike shows style

PHOTOGRAPHERS attached to the French agency Sygma were on strike for 16 days at the beginning of February, over the attempt by new owners Corbis to impose Microserf-style conditions. Corbis is owned by William Gates Jr. Sygma people have re-named it "Kurskbis" - a notoriously sinking ship and an echo of the Cold War.

A participant in the Sygma workers' demonstration in February.
A participant in the Sygma workers' demonstration in February. The slogan "Authors' Rights Against Copyright" may seem strange, but it isn't. Authors' Rights are personal rights, akin to human rights. Copyright, as found in the US, UK and Ireland, is a property right. That's why Bill Gates was under the misapprehension that by buying Sygma he was buying the photographers' archives that it stores.

As the strikers put it, Bill Gates and the new management "thought that by buying the Sygma agency, they would automatically become owners of the archives. But French law makes photographers the owners of their images. Two and a half years after the Corbis takeover," they add, "Sygma is a mere shadow of what it used to be."

Having increased losses to €10 million a year, management in November - on the eve of the US Thanksgiving holiday - announced plans to cut 93 posts, almost half the workforce. Here, again, it seems that they failed to understand that US law does not (yet) apply worldwide. Photographers and other journalists who would be freelances in the US or UK are in France "roving employees" (you try translating « pigistes »). That means, for example, that they have a right to be consulted over redundancies and are included in the employees' social security scheme.

Corbis proposed that the remaining photographers turn themselves into companies. Where they'd traditionally borne half of the production costs, they'd have to bear all. They'd lose Social Security - and their press cards.

Those who refused the new conditions so kindly offered would have their material returned from the archive. But Sygma said it would keep the slide-mounts and protective coverings from negatives - which seems like a threat: "sign, or we deliver a bin-bag full of loose trannies".

On the first day of the strike, photographers and staff showed up at work - dressed in black and lying "dead" on the floor. They organised an exhibition at the Victor Sfez Gallery, and a street protest (pictured). Even against the background of a country where industrial action is compulsory, they stood out for the flair of their campaign and got serious media coverage of the issues.

They voted to return to work on 12 February, with concessions on Social Plan consultation, social security and pay, including being paid for the days on strike. Two of the 93 threatened posts are now apparently safe - but the huge and central issue over the archive remains.

Last modified: 11 March 2002 - © 2002 contributors
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