Alongside federalism and neutrality, the social partnership is considered one of the pillars of Swiss “uniqueness”. Nevertheless, 75 years after the signing of the first labour relations accord, the model is being severely tested.
Last month, employers, trade unionists, academics and politicians gathered in Tolochenaz, where the business federation of canton Vaud is based, to discuss the future of social relations in Switzerland.
Do the polite exchanges, shared views and desire to see another 75 years reflect something in the Swiss DNA or a myth skilfully nurtured since 1937, when the first accord was signed between trade unions and employers of watch makers?
“Neither one nor the other,” replied historian Olivier Meuwly. “Rather it was the result of a constructed phenomenon through which Swiss people learnt to deal with conflicts and come up with solutions.”
Meuwly pointed out that the religious and cultural tensions, which caused unrest after the creation of modern Switzerland in 1848, were followed in the 1860s by violent social conflicts, necessitating new ways of viewing relations with the enemy.
“On several occasion the concepts of Switzerland and federalism were at risk of failing,” he stressed.
Christophe Reymond, head of an employers’ organisation, agreed. “The labour relations accord and collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are not the result of a system or an ideology but – on the contrary – of an empiric practice,” he said.
“This model has enabled the negotiation of solutions suited to the realities of every economic branch, without state intervention. Today, 1.8 million workers are subject to 620 CBAs in Switzerland.”
Although several participants made the connection between the labour relations accord, prosperity and political stability in Switzerland, Basel historian Bernard Degen was keen to abandon certain received ideas, such as Switzerland playing a pioneering role for social partnerships.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, only the small arts and crafts businesses had signed the CBA. Their number was significantly greater in Britain and Germany,” he said.
Another myth, according to Degen, was the causal link between prosperity and social peace.
“Certain countries which faced significant strikes – I’m thinking of France in the 1960s – have seen faster growth than Switzerland,” he said, adding somewhat provocatively that “military inspections of arms and equipment have certainly cost Switzerland more working days than the numerous strikes abroad.”
For Henri-Jean Tolone, a French negotiation consultant, the state of labour relations sometimes resembles a “pax atomica”, where peace is kept by nuclear weapons.
“Employers fear their companies will grind to a halt and workers are worried that their company may relocate abroad. It’s the reign of terror,” he said.
“In a bad way”
According to Yves Flückiger, professor of economics at Geneva University, the labour relations accord, combined with the diversification of the economy and gains in productivity, enabled Switzerland to withstand the economic crisis better than its neighbours.
“The developments of the unemployment rate and wage levels are closely linked, which makes the absorbance of competitiveness shocks easier. Many people think this situation is due to the decentralisation of salary negotiations,” he said.
Bosses and trade unionists admit, however, that a certain vision of the social partnership and the virtues of negotiation are today in a bad way.
According to Alessandro Pelizzari from trade union Unia the profound changes in the labour market –the emergence of the service sector, casualised labour, working women and free movement –over two decades combined with the economy’s financialisation following the ideological slide toward neo-liberalism, have dismantled and disrupted the labour movement, as well as employers organisations.
Citing the decision in May by biotech company Merck Serono to close its Geneva site, Pelizzari defended the view that the internationalisation of capital and employers – half of Swiss companies are headed by foreigners – has fanned a revival of conflict.
To cope with this lack of social partnership, “we have to resort increasingly to the weapon of direct democracy.”
Sabine von der Weid from the French-speaking business federation was not impressed by this politicisation of social dialogue, which manifests itself notably in the launching of numerous people’s initiatives – in favour of six weeks of holiday, the introduction of minimum wages or the reduction of wage gaps.
“Shifting the debate from the negotiating table to the political stage is detrimental to unions and entrepreneurs. Both parties lose a community channel and negotiating weight. In future this could undermine social peace,” von der Weid added.