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


How German rail and air travel strikes will hit cross-border travel to Switzerland

German train drivers and Lufthansa cabin crew members are set to walk out in strikes this week. Here's how it could affect your travel plans to or from Switzerland.

How German rail and air travel strikes will hit cross-border travel to Switzerland

Not a week has gone by without a strike or two being called in Germany recently. And there’s more misery ahead for passengers as rail and air travel is to be impacted in simultaneous industrial action this week. 

The German GDL Train Drivers’ Union said its latest members’ strike affecting passenger rail services would start at 2am on Tuesday March 12th and last until 2am on Wednesday, March 13th.

For cargo services the strike is set to start a few hours earlier, the union said in a statement.

It comes after a 35-hour train drivers’ strike in Germany last week which paralysed the network on Thursday and part of Friday. It is the union’s sixth walkout since November in the dispute for more pay and fewer working hours. 

The GDL union blamed the latest strike on deadlocked talks with rail operator Deutsche Bahn.

Adding to the chaos, Lufthansa cabin crew are set to walk off the job at Frankfurt airport on Tuesday March 12th, and at Munich airport on Wednesday March 13th in a strike called by the UFO trade union.

The German airline group was already hit by a two-day strike by ground staff last week as the Verdi union demanded higher pay for its members. This action affected hundreds of thousands of passengers. 

How will the latest strike affect air travellers?

If you have a flight booked with Lufthansa to or from Switzerland during the strike, you may be affected. 

You might have already received a message from the airline operator telling you about the strike and the next steps to rebook or to get refunded. 

According to Frankfurt airport’s information page, some flights to Geneva, Basel and Zurich scheduled on Tuesday have already been cancelled, with return flights also affected. 

It was not possible on Monday to see which flights have been cancelled to and from Munich on Wednesday.  

How will the strike affect train passengers?

As you would expect, people in Germany are going to be hit the hardest in the strike affecting passenger services from the early hours of Tuesday until 2am Wednesday.

Although an emergency timetable is usually put in place, around 80 percent of rail services nationwide have been cancelled in previous train drivers’ strikes. 

Long-distance trains and regional transport is disrupted, although the availability of regional services varies between different areas. 

But it’s not only domestic German travel affected – international long-distance services are usually hit too. In previous strikes, four out of five Deutsche Bahn long distance and international trains have been cancelled. 

SBB Deutschland, which operates services in Germany and the cantons of Basel-City and Schaffhausen in Switzerland, said: “The train drivers of SBB Deutschland themselves are not on strike. Nevertheless, operations depend on the dispatchers and other professional groups of the infrastructure operator DB Netz AG as well as their tracks and systems. If they stop working, our trains will also come to a standstill.”

SBB Deutschland said they hope services can run according to the regular timetable but pointed out that special services the operator ran between Freiburg and Basel during previous strikes “cannot be offered due to the short notice”.

Rail operators have urged people to check the status of their connections in advance and if affected to travel on a different date.

You can check strike developments on the SBB’s website here and the Deutsche Bahn website here.

READ ALSO: Why Switzerland beats Germany for reliable trains

What are the strikes about?

As well as salary increases, the GDL Train Drivers’ Union’s key demand is a reduced work week of 35 hours, down from 38 currently, at full pay.

The UFO union is fighting for wage increases for Lufthansa cabin crew members amid rising inflation, and maintains that the offers from management so far are not good enough.

Although Switzerland is used to strong industrial action talking place in neighbouring countries – notably France as well as Germany, the Swiss generally do not have a striking culture.