Protests point to growing union unrest

Postal workers went on strike at four sorting offices on Thursday morning Keystone

This week’s protest action by metal and postal workers has demonstrated the potential for union unrest in Switzerland.

This content was published on November 25, 2004 - 19:07

In an interview with swissinfo, the co-president of Switzerland’s largest trade union discusses the latest demonstrations with a leading economics commentator.

Vasco Pedrina is co-president of Unia, formed last month from a merger of four trade unions from the construction, engineering, retail and catering sector. It counts 200,000 members and claims to represent over one million workers.

Beat Kappeler writes on economic affairs for a number of Swiss newspapers and magazines. He was also a senior member of the Swiss Trades Union Federation from 1977 to 1992.

swissinfo: Are there any similarities in the way employees at Swiss Post and Swissmetal have come out against strategies defined by their respective managements?

Beat Kappeler: Yes, in the sense that in both cases we have witnessed the collapse of the collective labour contract. And in Switzerland it is precisely this contract that ensures harmonious labour relations.

In the case of the Post Office, there is a feeling among managers that the union is not acting in good faith. They think that union members are taking different stances in public to those taken during meetings with management.

Vasco Pedrina: I think parallels can be drawn. Both situations are linked to tough decisions taken by management which have led the employees to organise themselves as forces to be reckoned with.

In the case of Swissmetal, management went ahead with restructuring without trying to get the employees involved in the decision-making process. Salaries have been frozen for four years… and working conditions have deteriorated.

As for the Post Office, we are looking at an attempt on the part of management to dismantle the traditional relationship between the employer and employees. And they’re doing this by pushing forward with outsourcing plans which will reduce salaries by 20 per cent – given that we’re talking about a state-owned company, this is an absolute scandal.

swissinfo: Given what we've seen at the Post Office and Swissmetal, is it fair to talk in general about a breakdown in relations between companies and their employees?

B.K.: I don’t think so. But what I do see is a lack of experience on the part of the bosses, who have failed to seize the initiative and get the public on their side. The Post Office managers could have turned round and said: "Look at how irresponsible they are being in staging a protest just weeks before Christmas!”

But those in charge simply don’t know how to fight their own corner… To see them like this almost makes you feel sorry for them.

V.P.: Over the past few years we’ve seen a deterioration in relations between managers and staff, something which you could put down to globalisation. Switzerland has also seen quite a marked shift to the Right. Until now, this has mostly been felt on a political level, but we are also starting to see this seep into business and employment relations.

What we also witnessed in the case of Swissmetal, however, was that members of the public were behind the workers. This was not the case several years ago, when strikes and demonstrations were largely frowned upon.

swissinfo: When it was formed last month, Unia said harmonious labour relations could no longer be taken for granted…

B.K.: Union leaders have been trying for the past ten years to cling on to the idea of harmonious relations, organising just the odd small strike here and there. But these protests have not been successful.

And there’s another danger: if protests against management continue, I think employers will also come out fighting. They might well take a more hard line, close companies down more quickly and not even involve the unions before taking decisions.

V.P.: I think there are two different approaches at management level. On the one hand, there are employers who think they can resolve future problems by putting pressure on salaries and working conditions. But the other train of thought runs that to create high-quality products and services you need a workforce that is skilled, motivated and treated well. And until now, quality has always been one of the hallmarks of the Swiss economy.

Over the next few years, we are going to see the development of a real battle between these two trains of thought. If the first of these alternatives prevails, we can expect industrial disputes to escalate and worker-employer relations to deteriorate.

swissinfo-interview: Armando Mombelli and Pierre-François Besson

In brief

Post Office management announced plans last month to create independent subsidiaries affecting hundreds of staff.

Union members, who staged protests on Wednesday night, say the move will lead to pay cuts for those concerned.

Employees at the Swissmetal factory in northwestern Switzerland ended a ten-day strike on Thursday after voting in favour of a deal which guarantees the future of the site.

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