L’Association strike lifted, but uncertainties remain

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On 11 February the striking employees of seminal French comics publisher l’Association announced that they were lifting the strike that they had been conducting since 10 January. They are satisfied that efforts at mediation between them and directorial have led to the decision to hold a general assembly on 5 March where the problems plaguing the publisher will be addressed.

At the the heart of the conflict is the announcement of redundancies made by the direction in December, a decision the employees don’t believe is justified by the troubled financial situation the publisher finds itself in, in part due to the collapse of their distributor Le Comptoir des indépendants last fall, but primarily due to reduced sales in general. They have been insisting that there are other means of solving its current solvency issues, including reducing its enormously costly back catalogue storage (apparently, l’Association has never held a sale or eliminated inventory). They describe the decision to fire a number of employees as a “philosophical” one, meant to strengthen the publisher’s new line of radical but reduced output and express dissatisfaction with this decision having been made over their heads and without consulting the membership (remember, l’Association is not registered as a traditional business, but rather as an organisation).

Responding to this press release and to the events of the last month and a half in general, l’Association’s unofficial director and editorial and ideological centre, Jean-Christophe Menu has released a long letter, sharing his point of view on the affair. I won’t go into detail, but merely note the main points here:

  • * The publisher’s financial woes go back at least to 2009, when Menu had an outside accountant review their books. The immediate decision was to reduce the annual output, from c. 40 in 2009 to 25 books in 2010. If all goes well, it’ll be the same in 2011.
  • Menu, who had been drawing a salary at the publisher since 1999, fired himself in March 2010. This, according to him, is the reason why the employees describe the redundancies being ordered by “an unpaid director whose responsibilities remain undefined” in their original press release. Menu agrees at least in principle with this, specifying that he bears no juridical responsibility for any decision made. This falls to the direction, primarily President Patricia Perdrizet and treasurer Laetitia Zuccarelli.
  • He attempts to explain the announced redundancies, which he describes as a measure that was considered necessary for the survival of the publisher and anything but “philosophical.” (he describes the latest press release as a “caricature” of his position and as “defamatory”). He goes through each of the projected redundancies, explaining his rationale, which has to do with certain tasks being less vital for the publisher now that its output has been reduced. He doesn’t explain the math behind the decisions, but acknowledges that getting rid of inventory might help and that he is considering it for the first time in l’Association’s history.
  • He strongly objects to the employees going public with what he considers an “internal matter”, and explains how it only hurt l’Association to have this play out in public, not the least the way it did in Angoulême, which not only meant a considerable loss in revenue but in the publishers credibility (there were efforts to prevent that, to create a “cease-fire”, but it didn’t work out). He adds that the uncertainty may also affect other publishers in that Belles Lettres Diffusion, the distributor that took over several of the accounts of Le Comptoir des Indépendants when it folded did so because of l’Association’s participation. Without it, the others might lose their distribution. He also mentions the online petition that went out in support of the strike, calling it “hypocritical” in that it was cast in terms of the survival of the publisher, not the jobs in question, and misrepresented his position.
  • He mentions how his former co-founders Killoffer, Lewis Trondheim and David B. signed this petition, called for an general assembly, and turned up at an emergency meeting on 22 January, in which the direction and its lawyer, the employees, and a number of members and other people close to the publisher participated. The hope was to solve the problems and propose some way of separating editorial and administration, but nothing was decided. Menu takes exception to the actions of his former colleagues, describing their actions as an attempt to push him out and take over l’Association. (An account of this meeting by Pascal Pierry, hwo participated, can be read here).
  • The problem, he writes, is that l’Association has always tended to mix professional and the creative (or ‘affective’) with too little attention paid to the juridical. This crisis is a product of long-standing dysfunction in the structure and mistakes made on both sides (he admits that interpersonal relation has never been his strong suit).
  • Finally, he explains how the artists and the books are his main concern and that he considers it all-important that l’Association maintains its editorial vision. Apparently, one of the hopes of the employees is the formation of an editorial board that makes joint decisions for the company, something he strongly objects to, describing their demands for influence on the direction of the company as being beyond their purview as employees. While acknowledging the formative importance of his co-founders, whose books built l’Association, he emphasises that the publisher is what it is because of his editorial vision and work. Without it, there would be no Association. It’s something he is unwilling to compromise on.
  • There’s much more, including many details of the individual meetings held over the past month, but little in terms of what Menu’s position is going in to the general assembly on 5 March. I guess we shall just have to see, and hope for as positive an outcome as possible.

    Image of the Association booth at the Angoulême festival with the sign saying “Employees on strike”.

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