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Strikes For Members

ANALYSIS: Why are workers in Switzerland opting for strike action?

Helena Bachmann in Geneva
Helena Bachmann in Geneva - [email protected] • 14 Oct, 2022 Updated Fri 14 Oct 2022 14:49 CEST
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United Nations (UN) staffs hold a banner a the UN offices in Geneva during a strike day to protest against wage cuts, on March 23, 2018 in Geneva. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

In the past, Switzerland’s workers very rarely took to the streets to express their discontent with their employers. But could a recent strike — and the threat of another such action — signal a shift?

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Unlike is the case in many other nations, industrial action by Swiss workers is relatively uncommon.

This doesn’t mean that employees in Switzerland never took to the streets.

In November 1918, for instance, 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 World War I in several European countries.

More recent examples include a strike at the Swiss Federal Railways workshop in Bellinzona in 2008 and a strike of Geneva public transport employees in 2014.

Swiss News Agency staff also went on strike over planned redundancies in January of this year, as did Geneva United Nations employees over pay cuts in February and March.  

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However, research shows that in comparison to 12 other European countries, as well as the United States and Canada, Switzerland lost the lowest number of days per 1,000 workers.

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 have strikes been relatively rare in Switzerland?

The reason is that the Swiss, who have a long history of diplomacy and mediation, also like to avoid industrial conflict through negotiations.

This approach is made easier as many sectors are governed by collective bargaining agreements (CLA) which set conditions for employees.

It is a contract negotiated between Switzerland’s trade unions and employers or employer organisations. 

Generally speaking, they cover a minimum wage for each type of work; regulations relating to work hours; payment of wages in the event of illness or maternity; vacation and days off; and protection against dismissal.

READ MORE: What is a Swiss collective bargaining agreement — and how could it benefit you?

This tradition is deeply rooted and also seen in the country’s politics, where compromise is important. Another argument has it that the fact that people can voice their opinions through regular referendums reduces the potential for conflict in the workplace as well.

Recent events, however, could be changing this culture of peaceful negotiations versus industrial actions.

On October 12th and 13th, Geneva’s public workers took to the streets — halting all bus and tram service in the city, while their union representatives negotiated wage increases with the management, which were finally granted.

And just as many Swiss families are planning holidays abroad next week, during the autumn school vacations, SWISS pilots announced they may go on strike on October 17th if the airline doesn’t meet their demands.

Friday morning, representatives of SWISS as well as the pilots’ union, Aeropers, told The Local that negotiations are still ongoing in an effort to avoid the strike and ground the fleet during the busy travel season.

READ MORE: SWISS airline pilots set to strike on Monday

But that’s not all: while they have not announced their intention to strike per se, the country’s masons will demonstrate in several cities in Switzerland over the next four weeks to demand higher salaries and better working conditions on construction sites.

Regardless of whether the pilots and masons will actually launch an industrial action, the mere threat of it, along with the prospect of immobilising important parts of the economy, would have been considered decidedly “un-Swiss” in the past.

So what changed?

This shift can be attributed to several reasons:

Inflation / higher cost of living

Though at 3.3 percent and lower than elsewhere in Europe, this rate is much higher than the Swiss are used to.

The cost of living — from common consumer products to the price of housing — has gone up, as has the cost of gas and heating fuel, which soared due to the war in Ukraine.

Additionally, healthcare premiums will increase by a hefty 6.6 percent on average in 2023 — and even more in some cantons.

All this means the purchasing power in Switzerland has declined, making it hard for many people to make the ends meet.

As many companies — also squeezed by the rising costs — may not be willing to pay higher wages to their employees, workers may see a strike as the only way to get what they want.

Copycat effect

As a wave of strikes or threats of strikes had swept Europe recently, Swiss workers might have seen these actions as an effective way to make management accept union demands.

They were not wrong. An analysis by Switzerland’s largest trade union, UNIA, indicates that between 2000 and 2016, 40 percent of industrial actions concluded with workers’ demands being totally met, and 50 percent got partial compensations.

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Could frequent strikes become a 'new normal' for Switzerland?

This depends on a number of factors, including whether the inflation slows down and the prices drop, and whether companies are willing to negotiate with unions when the time comes to renew CLAs.

As Andreas Rieger, former head of UNIA, told Tribune de Genève, “in Switzerland, most conflicts are still resolved at the negotiating table”.

 

 

 

 

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Helena Bachmann in Geneva 2022/10/14 14:49

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