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Why are strikes so rare in Switzerland?

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Why are strikes so rare in Switzerland?
United Nations staff in Geneva during a strike day to protest against wage cuts, on 23 March 2018. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
15:50 CEST+02:00
Industrial action by Swiss workers is relatively uncommon compared to other countries.

Swiss construction workers made the Swiss headlines this week for going on strike over several issues, the most prominent being proposals to increase their retirement age. Demonstrations took place on Monday in Ticino and then Tuesday and Wednesday in Geneva. 

READ ALSO: Industrial action in Switzerland: Construction workers take to the streets

Trade unions have warned that strikes could continue and announced that “the autumn is set to be heated”.  However, such events are relatively rare in Switzerland.

Why don't the Swiss strike?

Well, they sometimes do. But it's true that strikes aren't that common. In 2017, the Hans Böckler Stiftung published research showing that Switzerland lost only two working days per 1,000 workers to strikes between 2005 and 2015.

How does that compare to other countries?

The research looked at 12 other European countries plus the United States and Canada. Switzerland lost the joint lowest number of days per 1,000 workers, equal with Austria. Top of the list were France (123 days) and Denmark (122), even though the research only looked at private sector strikes for the former.

Why is the number so low in Switzerland?

The country has a long tradition of avoiding industrial conflict through negotiations. Many sectors are governed by collective bargaining agreements which set conditions for employees. That tradition is deeply rooted and also seen in the country's politics, where compromise is important. Some also argue that the fact people can voice their opinions through regular referendums reduces the potential for conflict in the workplace.

Has it always been that way?

Not exactly. In November 1918, the country was paralysed by a three-day general strike involving 250,000 people. It was the culmination of violent social conflict near the end of the First World War in several European countries. Three strikers were killed by the Swiss army.

Striking was relatively common in the inter-war years but then virtually disappeared after 1945. It seems to have gained popularity again more recently.

So that means there are more strikes now?

The increase isn't dramatic – as mentioned, the statistics show that strikes are uncommon compared to other countries – but there has been more industrial action in the last 20 years than at any time since the Second World War.

Notable examples include a strike at the Swiss Federal Railways workshop in Bellinzona in 2008 and a strike of Geneva public transport employees in 2014. This year, there have also been several strikes in addition to the ones by construction workers.

Swiss News Agency staff went on strike over planned redundancies in January, as did Geneva United Nations employees over pay cuts in February and March.  A planned strike of air traffic controllers at Geneva Airport in July was cancelled.

What are the reasons for the increase in industrial action?

With it being a fairly politicised topic, you might get a different answer depending on who you ask. The right to strike was enshrined in the constitution in 1999, so that might have played a role. Trade unions argue the increase is because the Swiss culture of social partnership has broken down.

The what?

‘Social partnership' refers to the system of collective bargaining and the resultant collective agreements. The reason the strikes in Geneva and Ticino have been happening now is that the current agreement for the construction industry expires at the end of this year and many workers don't like the employers' proposals for the new agreement.

Unions argue that the social partnership was damaged in the 1990s by economic crises and the introduction of neo-liberal policies. They say that has cut company bosses off from the culture of social partnership and has increased their tendency to stick to ideological positions. Employers are as a result less likely to view staff members as partners who they negotiate with as equals.

How many Swiss people are in trade unions?

20.3%, according to the Swiss Association of Trade Unions (SGV). The figure varies considerably between countries. A 2015 study of OECD countries showed 92% of workers in Iceland were in unions, with Sweden also registering a high proportion at 67%. Switzerland's figure of 20% makes it higher than Germany, Australia and Japan (all around 17%) but lower than the United Kingdom (24.7%), Canada (26.5%) and Ireland (26.5%).  

Is the trend towards more strikes likely to continue in future?

It is difficult to say. Trade unions themselves say a return to a situation comparable with 1918 is unthinkable as the conditions are not there for industrial action of that scale. However, the strikes that have taken place this year and the statements made by the unions about the most recent demonstrations suggest that industrial action is here to stay for the time being.

 

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