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Everything foreigners need to know about trade unions in Switzerland

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Everything foreigners need to know about trade unions in Switzerland
United Nations staff demonstrated in Geneva in 2018 for higher wages. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

On May 1st, Switzerland, like many other nations around Europe, will celebrate Labour Day. This is a good occasion to get to know more about the country's unions — what they are and what their mission is.


If you work in Switzerland, earn a decent salary, enjoy good working conditions and benefits, you probably feel no need to join a labour union. 

In fact, with only about one in five employees belonging to a trade union, Switzerland's 'unionisation rate' is among the lowest in Europe. As a comparison, union memberships range from around 70 percent in Finland, Sweden and Denmark, to 8 percent in France.

A bit of history...

In most countries, labour unions grew during the Industrial Revolution out of the need for better wages, benefits, working conditions, and overall protection for the labour force, which was often underpaid and treated unfairly by the employers.

Switzerland was no different: it was not always a wealthy country it is today, and collective agreements between companies and employees did not come into existence until the 20th century (see below).

READ MORE: Swiss history: The country was once so poor, people had to go abroad to survive


The first Swiss trade unions emerged in the second half of the 19th century, mostly in the printing trade, as well as construction, timber, metal, watchmaking and textile industries. 

By the 1960s, almost a quarter of Switzerland's workforce belonged to a union, but numbers began to decline in the following decades, with only one in 10 workers still unionised by the end of the 1990s.

Today, two main labour unions are active in Switzerland: the largest is The Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (UNIA), the umbrella group for 16 unions in the areas of industry and construction. A second umbrella organisation is Travail Suisse, with 13 member unions. 

Should you join a union?

While in certain countries, companies (perhaps most notably the giant retailer Walmart in the United States) actively discourage employees from joining a union at the risk of losing their jobs, Switzerland's Constitution guarantees the "freedom of association", including the right to join or not join a trade union. Nobody has the right to dissuade you from joining, if this is what you want.

On the employers' side, the Swiss Employers Association is the umbrella body for about 80 organisations, "committed to ensuring the most favourable economic and employer policy framework conditions".

Along with the Swiss Business Federation (Economiesuisse) and the Swiss Association of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, the three associations form Switzerland's leading bodies representing business and economic interests. 

Do the two sides — unions and employers' associations — butt heads?

Sometimes, divergence of opinions does happen, but this being Switzerland, things are usually resolved in a calm and pragmatic manner.

That's because both sides have concluded a collective employment agreement, which defines wages and other conditions which must be complied with in various sectors of the industry.

Additionally, there are company-specific collective employment agreements, as well as agreements which only apply to specific employers in certain regions.

All this is intended to ensure that employees' welfare and rights are being respected and to avoid labour strikes.

This system works to preserve workers' rights relatively effectively, for instance in relation to minimum wage. 

Switzerland maintains high wages despite not having a federal minimum wage, while only a handful of cantons have put in place a minimum standard. 

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about minimum wage in Switzerland


Do strikes happen in Switzerland nevertheless?

The Swiss do demonstrate — against Covid vaccines or in favour of climate - but unlike in France and other countries throughout Europe, Swiss workers rarely go on strike.

A climate strike in Bern on October 22, 2021. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

It is not only because the Swiss don't like confrontation, but they also believe that most contentious issues can be solved through negotiation and collective bargaining.

Only when conflicts can't be resolved at a bargaining table — which is rare — do unions organise strikes.

However, both sides try to avoid such drastic actions so as not to disrupt the smooth running of the economy; according to Encyclopedia Britannica, "by European standards, Switzerland’s trade unions are a pretty mild bunch".

As The Local reported in 2018 (and the situation has not changed since then), "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".

You can find out more about strikes in Switzerland here:

Why are strikes so rare in Switzerland?


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