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Why are strikes so rare in Switzerland?

Industrial action by Swiss workers is relatively uncommon compared to other countries.

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

Swiss construction workers made the Swiss headlines late in 2018 for going on strike over several issues, the most prominent being proposals to increase their retirement age. Demonstrations took place in Ticino and Geneva. 

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

Trade unions 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?

Some 20.3 per cent, 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.

 

POLICE

Swiss police clear months-long quarry protest

Swiss police on Tuesday swooped down on environmental protesters who have been occupying a quarry owned by Franco-Swiss cement giant LafargeHolcim for months to protest against its plans to expand the site.

Swiss police clear months-long quarry protest
Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

A large contingent of police, many in riot gear, descended on the Mormont site in La Sarraz in the western canton of Vaud early Tuesday, asking the some 200 activists to leave or be removed by force.

The activists set up camp at the site in October, warning of the environmental and ecological consequences of Lafarge-Holcim’s plans to expand the quarry.

The company and the La Sarraz municipality had filed legal petitions to remove the activists, and the police operation came after the protesters’ legal appeals were rejected.

The move to clear the outer limits of the camp went off peacefully, but as the officers went towards a farmhouse at the centre, some protesters threw rocks and threw fireworks, an AFP photographer said.

“It is a high-anxiety situation. But we want to stick it out as long as possible,” one of the demonstrators told the ATS-Keystone news agency shortly before being evacuated by police.

The regional police said one police officer had been slightly wounded but none of the activists were injured.

By evening, police had detained 29 people, 12 of whom were taken into custody in nearby Lausanne.

A number of the activists remained up in trees or on the farmhouse roof, singing and shouting slogans against LafargeHolcim.

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