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Corbis Confidential - "There's A Virus In The System"

6 February 2002 - EPUK

On January 29, the day after the strike began, the Paris photographers attempted to spread news of events via Corbis’ internal e-mail. However shortly after they e-mailed Corbis offices world wide their message was apparently deleted from the server, and a further e-mail was posted from company headquarters in Bellevue warning employees that the original mail contained a virus and should not be opened.

The virus warning was nonsense, of course, but Corbis had to say something. They could hardly sit back and allow the strikers to use the company’s e-mail system to further their cause, and once they started deleting mail they had to either present a plausible story or admit censorship.

Even having stopped the mail however, Corbis were still left with a problem: some staff had already opened it and were asking questions – like “what on earth is going on?” The solution was to activate spin control on Corbis Q & A, a weekly confidential mail out to staff in which the company attempts to answer employee enquiries. Corbis Q & A normally publishes on Friday, but such was the level of interest and concern within the company at the Paris events that Corbis distributed a special extra edition.

The short extract below is interesting, not only because it shows how Corbis felt obliged to spin the company version of events, but also because the employee seeking information preferred to remain anonymous.

Corbis Confidential

Dear Readers,

No, it isn’t Friday yet, but we’re publishing a special edition this week of the Corbis Q&A. We received a number of questions in theCorbis Q&A box today, in response to earlier emails about activities in CorbisFrance. We felt it was important to respond quickly to these questions.

With that in mind, here are the issues you’ll read about in this edition:

Q1: What is the strike in France all about?

Members of the Corbis management team are forced to step over employees to get access to the room where negotiations are being held.

Dear Corbis Q&A,

Please keep me anonymous. I read on the Internet that our French employees are striking because they aren’t being treated fairly. And then I got those photographs this morning. We’ve all dealt with a lot of layoffs over the last year, but it seems like their situation may be even worse than ours, since we’ve never had any strikes in my office. What is the strike in France all about? Why are they striking? Why haven’t we been told more about the situation?

– Name Withheld on Request

A photo montage pasted on the entrance of the Paris offices shows Franck Perrier, General Manager of Corbis France, signing a contract with the devil. Corbis Q&A Reply:

Late last year, we began a process to restructure the news production business in France, given the financial difficulties in this segment of our business. This process was initiated in late November, and in an email communication to Corbis Worldwide, we explained that, in 2000,oursales were down 19% from 1999, and from 1997 to 2000, sales have decreased by 30%.

It is true that our Paris employees in the Corbis Sygma group, including staff photographers, have gone on strike in response to this restructuring process. This is very different than a strike in the United States, which usually connotes union-led demonstrations and picket lines that cannot be crossed. Employees are in the Paris office, but not performing any duties except to respond to urgent news matters.

Daily production of news has stopped. The Corbis Stock Market and Corbis Outline teams in Paris continue to do business as usual.

The people who are “striking” in Paris are not members of the worker’s committee – the official group that represents workers’ interests. We are continuing to work with this worker’s committee, focusing on how to create a viable and sustainable news business in France. Our work with that group continues to move forward uninterrupted, in accordance with French labor law. We are carefully following the labor law in France, which protects employees’ interests, because we want to treat all of the employees in France with respect and fairness.

Restructuring is always painful, as many of us know, but our overall objective is to make our French news operation successful, and we do believe that these actions will ultimately be best for the business. We believe that shifting production from daily spot news to more globally relevant stories and features will help us to be more successful. As part of this process, we will offer staff photographers the opportunity to sign freelance agreements, like the ones we use with all of our other photographers in the world. We’re committed to making that transition as easy as possible for these photographers – we’ve made sure that they can renew their press credentials for at least two years, and are exploring ways for photographers to maintain some of the securities they currently enjoy as staff members.

This strike does not alter our plan – we continue to work toward a mutually agreeable solution. We are operating in good faith with the worker’s committee and following the letter of French labor law, and we believe that we can build a successful news business in Paris. These labor regulations do affect our ability to communicate regularly, but we will strive to answer your questions about this process openly and in a timely fashion.

– Steve Davis and Tony Rojas, Office of the President, Bellevue

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