Public-sector employees down tools

Leaflets were handed out to members of the public Keystone

Public-sector workers across the country staged a nationwide demonstration on Thursday in protest against planned spending cuts.

This content was published on September 15, 2005 - 17:09

The day of action came one week after the Swiss government unveiled proposals to overhaul and slim down the civil service.

The demonstration, held under the banner "Public service: the foundation of our society", was jointly organised by 17 unions.

Thousands of people took to the streets in a series of coordinated protest events.

Organisers said the day of action would help raise awareness of the important contribution the unions' 330,000 members make to public-sector life at both a federal and cantonal level.

The unions argue that the cantonal and federal governments are becoming increasingly obsessed with the need to cut costs and complain that public services and jobs are being put under unnecessary pressure.

Earlier this year police in Zurich warned that the focus on cuts to public spending was putting an intolerable strain on law-enforcement activities in the canton.

Federal politics

At a federal level, meanwhile, the government has unveiled plans to reform the civil service in Bern.

Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz of the centre-right Radical Party said the reform programme would help to reduce costs but should not be seen solely as an attempt to shed jobs.

One of Merz's closest allies on the subject of public-sector reform is his cabinet colleague Christoph Blocher of the rightwing Swiss People's Party.

But Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger of the centre-left Social Democrats has criticised the plans, saying they reflect an "obsessional" desire to cut the federal administration to the bone.

Exaggerated need?

Colin Talbot, a professor of public policy at Nottingham University in Britain, agrees that some politicians tend to exaggerate the need for reform.

But he told swissinfo that there was also some truth in the image of the over-staffed civil service.

"All public-sector organisations, because they are not subject to market forces in the same way as the private sector, develop inefficiencies over time," said Talbot.

"So every so often you have to have campaigns to eliminate these inefficiencies. Firms in the private sector do this because they are stimulated by market forces. Public-sector organisations do it because politicians realise that there comes a time when they need to make things more efficient.

"But the very same politicians have turned this need into a virtue and they now compete to show that they are the best at cutting out waste."

Wider picture

Switzerland is not the only country in Europe to be grappling with reform of the public sector.

Last November thousands of civil servants in Britain went on strike over government plans to shed up to 100,000 jobs.

And public-sector workers in France downed tools for several days earlier this year in protest against salary and job cuts.

"You've got the same problems [across Europe] of managing very large-scale organisations and trying to make them as efficient as possible," said Talbot, adding that the thirst for reform was not solely the prerogative of governments on the political Right.

"That's a bit of a myth, because some leftwing governments have been just as active in reforming civil services as rightwing ones.

"So it's not always a simple question of Left versus Right. The debate about reform of this kind has much more to do with issues of management and organisation than with [political] ideology."

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

Thursday's day of protest drew thousands of public-sector employees on to the streets of cities across the country.
Organisers say nearly one million pamphlets were handed out to the public in around 60 railway stations.
Seventeen unions came together to stage the joint protest, which was held one year after a similar nationwide demonstration.

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