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.


For members


Cancellations and compensation: How French strikes affect European flights

More than 10 million airline passengers were hit by strikes and cancellations due to recent French air traffic control strikes - around half of them on flights that were only passing over France. Here's how this could affect you and your rights to refunds or compensation.

Cancellations and compensation: How French strikes affect European flights

French strikes don’t just affect France – particularly when it comes to air travel.

As a cursory glance at the map will show you, France is geographically pretty central to Europe, so many flights within the continent pass over French airspace – in fact roughly half of the flights in French airspace are only passing through, known as ‘overflights’.

French air traffic controllers can be a fairly militant lot – and if they are on strike your flight could be affected even if you’re not going to or from France.

European air traffic control body Eurocontrol recently published research examining the impact of French strikes over the past month – air traffic controllers have been taking part in long-running strikes in protest at president Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension reform.

The data shows that between March 1st and April 9th, more than 10 million passengers were hit with either delays or cancellations as a result of strikes, with an average of 64,000 passengers a day impacted.

On an average day, 3,300 flights take off or land in France (of which 800 are domestic flights) and 3,700 pass through French airspace – and are therefore affected if French air traffic controllers go on strike. 

Air traffic controllers are required to give notice if they intend to strike, the French Direction Générale de l’aviation civile (DGAC) then calculates how many workers will be on strike and orders airline to cancel a certain percentage of their flights. It is up to airlines which flights they cancel, and most prioritise long-haul flights and cancel the short-haul ones in order to try and minimise disruption to passengers. 

In a recent petition to the EU to change the rules on minimum strike cover, the Irish budget airline Ryanair claims that disruption disproportionately falls on overflights, saying: “It is unacceptable that France uses Minimum Service Legislation to protect French fights during these repeated ATC strikes, while overflights, none of which are operating to/from France, suffer all these cancellations.”

However data from Eurocontrol doesn’t suggest a disproportionate effect on overflights, with the March 1st to April 9th data showing that 14 percent of flights that took off or landed in France (including domestic flights) were impacted by strikes while 16 percent of overflights were affected. 

Eurocontrol added, however, that their data on strike-related flight cancellations does not include flights cancelled more than three days in advance of the scheduled departure.

There are also knock-on effects – such as planes ending up in the wrong place due to cancellations – that can force airlines to delay or cancel flights even once industrial action is ended. 

Who is worst affected?

As you would expect, the country most affected by the industrial action was France, with 30 percent of flights delayed during the report period and daily cancellations up 158 percent on a normal day.

Neighbouring Spain saw 15 percent of its departures delayed, the vast majority of which were overflights, and cancellations rise by 63 percent, while the UK, Italy and Germany saw between 6 and 8 percent of departures disrupted, again, mostly overflights.

Graphic: Eurocontrol’s report on flight disruption between March 1st and April 9th, 2023

What does Ryanair want?

In terms of numbers of delayed flights, Ryanair suffered the worst disruption during this one-month period that the report covers, with 332 departures delayed due to French strikes, representing 13 percent of its total flights. French airline Air France suffered the highest percentage of delays with 31 percent of departures delayed, or 277 flights. 

Graphic from Eurocontrol’s report into the impact of French air traffic control strikes between March 1st and April 9th, 2023

Ryanair has now launched a petition to the EU to change the rules on air traffic control flights, saying that in the whole of 2023 it has been forced to cancel 3,350 flights due to strikes, the majority of which were overflights – if you’re a Ryanair customer, you might have already received a message asking you to sign it.

In France, strikes over pension reform began on January 19th and have continued sporadically since, with 12 one-day strikes that have seen high levels of disruption and further ongoing actions from single unions like air traffic controllers. 

The budget airline believes that flight cancellations discriminate against overflights and is calling on European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen to change the rules, forcing France to apply Minimum Service rules to overflights as well as French departures/arrivals and to allow European air traffic controllers to operate in French airspace if there is a strike.

“People can understand if you’re travelling to France and there is a strike, ‘fine, I could be impacted,’” Neal McMahon, the airline’s director of operations, told reporters.

“But somebody going from Valencia to Milan won’t be able to understand that it was delayed or potentially cancelled because the French are on strike. It’s impossible for consumers to understand that and it’s not fair,” he added.

What are my rights to a refund?

Even if the EU does agree to Ryanair’s proposals, which is far from certain, it will take time to implement, so for the moment at least overflights are likely to continue to be affected by French strikes.

So if you are affected by a delay or cancellation to an overflight, what are your rights to a refund?

In terms of compensation, it makes little different whether your flight is to/from France or simply over it, as EU compensation rules apply to all flights that either arrive at or depart from an airport in the EU/Schengen zone, or are operated by an EU-registered carrier.

Find full details on your rights and how to claim refunds HERE.

You can check the latest on French strike action at The Local France’s strike section HERE.