Advertisement

Opinion and Analysis For Members

OPINION: It's not just the good wages that explains why the Swiss rarely strike

OPINION: It's not just the good wages that explains why the Swiss rarely strike
It's rare but it does happen - workers on strike stand at Geneva's international airport on June 30th, 2023. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Industrial action, like the strike in Geneva airport last month, is exceedingly rare in Switzerland. This can’t be explained by good pay and working conditions alone, Clare O’Dea writes - striking is just not part of the culture. 

Advertisement

Amid the chaotic scenes at Geneva airport, where 138 flights were cancelled because of a strike over pay by airport employees on June 29th, the frustration of passengers was mixed with disbelief. 

READ ALSO: Flights cancelled at Geneva airport as strike extended

It was the first time ever that a Swiss airport could not operate because of a strike. The feeling was that this was the kind of thing that happens in other, flawed countries, but not in Switzerland. The strike was seen by many as an unwelcome contagion from France.

The two countries are at the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to strikes. The European Trade Union Institute keeps track of working days lost to strikes. Looking at the 2010 – 2019 period, the average annual number of days per 1,000 employees not worked due to strikes was 1.5 in Switzerland and 127 in France. 

So why is it that Switzerland is so far removed from the French experience when it comes to industrial action? The same applies to social unrest. The recent riots in France after the police killing of a 17-year-old spilled over only symbolically to Switzerland, leading to seven arrests in Lausanne city centre and several broken windows.

Advertisement

Interestingly, six of the seven people arrested were teenagers, of six different nationalities: Portuguese, Somali, Bosnian, Swiss, Georgian and Serbian. The diversity of Swiss immigrants along with the well-managed pathways from the education system into the workforce may to some extent explain why integration is more successful in Switzerland. 

But to get back to striking, the prevalence of collective bargaining in Switzerland is often pointed to as the recipe for success. Almost half of Swiss workers have their working conditions and pay covered by deals hammered out between employers and trade unions.

In France almost all workers are in this category, so it’s not the social partnership model itself that guarantees a strife-free outcome to disputes, it’s arguably more about the people involved. 

READ ALSO: Why Switzerland sees very few strikes compared to France or Germany

So why is there no strike culture in Switzerland? 

The Swiss political system is anchored in consensus all the way to the top, which echoes a non-confrontational atmosphere in society in general. 

Once, as part of a school committee discussion I attended, one of the participants said she was Harmoniebedürftig (in need of harmony), and therefore didn’t want take a hard stance on whatever the issue was. I had never heard the word before but found the concept very interesting. It seemed to explain a lot. 

As a feature of direct democracy, the Swiss also regularly get to express their preferences and frustrations at the ballot box, which could be another way of diffusing the potential for industrial strife.  

A person voting in Switzerland.

A person voting in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Another difference is the available resources or how they are distributed. The Swiss enjoy the highest salaries in Europe. Even adjusted for cost of living, salaries are the second highest, after Denmark. Swiss employees also benefit from generous annual leave of five weeks on average (four weeks statutory minimum). 

Are the Swiss too comfortable to care? One thing that really baffled me was when Swiss voters rejected a proposal for a national minimum wage in 2014. The proposed hourly rate of 22 francs would have been the highest in the world but the main argument was not that the country couldn’t afford it. 

The initiative was firmly binned by three-quarters of voters for being unnecessary. It was argued that the measure wasn’t needed because the vast majority already earned over that amount. There is strong resistance in Switzerland to laws or measures that are perceived as unnecessary, especially when they tie the hands of business. 

In the intervening years, led by canton Neuchâtel, five cantons have introduced a minimum wage, varying from 20 to 23 francs per hour. Zurich city and Winterthur city followed suit this year. Zurich city takes the top spot with an hourly rate of 23.90 francs. Some 17,000 workers in the city are expected to benefit from the reform, mainly women. 

READ ALSO: What we know about Zurich's planned minimum wage

Advertisement

To make an educated guess, most of these low-paid workers are also foreign, and therefore without voting rights. Foreign workers are overrepresented in sectors like cleaning, retail and catering. Perhaps their lack of security and organisation makes it harder for them to get to the point of initiating a strike. 

Hurdles to striking 

The right to strike has been enshrined in the Swiss Constitution since 1999, under certain conditions. It is balanced by an obligation to maintain industrial peace.

Industrial action must be union led, it must be specifically about working conditions (including pay), and used as a last resort, after conciliation has failed. Some workers in essential sectors are not permitted to strike. These conditions effectively cut off access to many workers.

But if you can’t strike, you can still take to the streets, which does happen from time to time. Public sector workers in Lausanne, including nurses, teachers and police officers, expressed their discontent this year in a series of demonstrations. The largest gathering on January 31st was attended by 5,000 people. 

Advertisement

As for the Geneva airport workers, their day of action did get results. Management offered to postpone the introduction of the new pay structure they were striking against until January 2025, which leaves more time for negotiations. 

But the general trend in Europe is towards a decline in industrial action. With a small number of exceptions, there were fewer strikes in most countries in the first decade of the 2000s, compared to the second decade. Switzerland is not a total outlier. Other countries, such as Austria, Sweden, Portugal and Poland have had a similarly low rate of strikes this century. 

For now, the success of the Swiss economy and the labour shortage that goes with it work in favour of employees. They are already in a strong position without striking. Swiss strikes are set to remain a rare phenomenon that sparks more disapproval than solidarity. 

More

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also