Why does Switzerland have fewer strikes than other countries?
As Germany continues to be embroiled in strikes at Deutsche Bahn, local transport associations, airport staff and even farmers, many in Switzerland may be questioning why the alpine nation remains relatively strike-free, despite facing similar challenges. Here are the reasons why Swiss workers are not as willing to walk out as those in other nations.
Strikes in Switzerland remain exceedingly rare
While Switzerland does have strikes occasionally - notably the two-day action by workers at TPG in Geneva in 2022 - data from the Institute of Economic and Social Sciences shows that the alpine nation is relatively unique for its lack of strike action. Between 2012 and 2021, Switzerland lost the equivalent of one day's work a year because of strike action, far less than Germany (18), the Netherlands (22), France (92) and Belgium (96).
This is most pronounced in sectors like public transport. For instance, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) has not been hit with strike action since the General Strike of 1918, meaning intercity transport has continued unaffected for over 100 years.
The history of strikes in Switzerland
However, Switzerland’s hesitancy to go out on strike is a relatively new phenomenon. Speaking to The Local, historian and director of the Swiss Social Archive Christian Koller noted that in the 19th and 20th centuries, “Swiss workers used to strike as often as their colleagues in other European countries."
The Swiss General Strike of 1918
This was most pronounced during the aforementioned Swiss General Strike in November 1918, when the country was brought to a standstill by 250.000 striking workers. The action was a culmination of tensions brought about by the First World War and its economic and social aftermath.
The strike led to the issuing of the so-called "Nine Demands" by the Olten Action Committee (OAK). These were for a new government elected via proportional representation, women's suffrage, a 48-hour working week, old age and disability insurance, guarantees of food, state control of foreign trade, reforms to the Army, full employment and a sovereign debt bailout to be paid by the most affluent.
It was also not a peaceful affair, as three of the striking workers in Grenchen were killed by the Swiss Army during the protest. The strike would be called off after two days, and the leaders of the OAK were tried and convicted.
Swiss become strike-shy after Second World War
Koller noted that strike action became increasingly less common in Switzerland after the Second World War. Despite brief revivals in strikes responding to global events - the 1970s oil shocks and the economic crises of the 1990s being two examples - strikes have become increasingly rare.
Why does Switzerland avoid strike action?
So why are the Swiss so strike-shy? For Koller, the reason lies in so-called Collective Labour Agreements (CLAs). These are work contracts negotiated between trade unions, employers, and employer associations and are backed by the government.
The time-limited agreements deal with minimum wages for each level and type of work, working hours, salaries, paid leave, pensions, conflict resolution processes and more. An estimated 2,1 million Swiss workers labour under a CLA - nearly half the workforce - with many of the largest companies having the deals in place for their workers.
The right to strike in Switzerland
CLAs also have a role in governing the right to strike in Switzerland. Under Article 28 of the Federal Constitution, workers governed by CLAs have the right to strike to obtain better working conditions in their collective contracts - practically, this means that trade unions are the biggest initiators of strike action in Switzerland. This applies to CLA workers in both the public and private sectors.
Crucially, the law also states that employees should try to find an amicable solution with their employer before they go on strike, and that "proportionate" strike action should be taken only once all avenues of negotiation have been exhausted. While workers not on CLAs also have the right to strike, they are usually expected to solve labour disputes individually in civil court.
Collective Labour Agreements make it harder to strike
However, labour law professor Roger Rudolph told SRF that many of the CLAs include a so-called “peace obligation”, meaning workers are unable to strike while the agreement is in place. Koller added that many of the older contracts “exclude strikes” altogether, especially in essential industries.
The lack of options to strike has gone hand in hand with economic development which made strikes unnecessary. “Long-standing economic growth from the late 1940s to the early 1970s made it possible for employers and trade unions to agree on successive improvements for workers, such as pay rises, reduction of working hours, and paid holidays,” Koller explained.
However, the fact that Germany also uses Collective Labour Agreements and that most German unions are striking because of failed negotiations over CLAs, means Switzerland's shyness towards strikes must go deeper.
Switzerland benefits from consensus and negotiations
Speaking to SRF, Stefan Heni from the Swiss Employers’ Association argued that the main reason why workers don’t strike is that unlike employers overseas, companies in Switzerland usually solve their disputes with unions at the negotiating stage. “Switzerland has a long tradition of willingness to compromise,” he noted.
Thomas Bauer, a spokesperson for employees’ union Travail Suisse, agreed, noting that the “social partnership” between employers and workers is “strongly anchored in Switzerland”, meaning unions will not as keenly abandon the negotiating table in favour of a strike, as is the case during CLA negotiations in Germany. SRF added that Switzerland’s economic prosperity and system of referendums further add to that cohesion.
Switzerland agrees strikes are a last resort
“Strikes are destructive and usually only leave losers behind,” Heini concluded. While he noted that “Strikes are important as a last resort”, Bauer said it was crucial to find solutions before the picket line forms.
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