Unions seek mergers as membership drops

Trade unionists used labour day to demand better rights for workers

Declining membership in Switzerland's unions in recent years has compelled the trade union movement to reassess its future role.

This content was published on May 1, 2002 - 17:41

In a week when Switzerland marked Labour Day, many of the country's workers took note of the changing status of the unions, and the shift in their influence with regard to employers.

Declining union membership, mainly the result of a shift from production work to service industries, has meant less income for the unions to carry out expensive campaigns.

"Losing members means we have less money and that means that we have less power against the employers," Max Haas, secretary of Switzerland's third-largest union Syna, told swissinfo.

Wielding power

While there were 951,192 members of unions and other employees' organisations in 1980, the figure had dropped to 776,132 by 2000. As a result, mergers are being discussed to tackle the problem of reaching a size that is large enough to carry more weight at the bargaining table.

The biggest merger under discussion is the proposed joining of the construction union with the engineering union, to form an "interprofessional" union.

"It's not a question of bigger being necessarily better but if you can coordinate union policy and organisation, it is more efficient for everybody," Rolf Zimmermann, a secretary of the Swiss Trade Union Federation told swissinfo.

Union member Adrian Blake, who works in the after sales service department at engineering group ABB in Turgi agrees that the unions will have to become bigger.

"There will have to be amalgamations. I am not sure we can stop the loss of membership because the process of people moving from shop floor to technical administration will continue unabated, so the first thing we have to do probably is work together more closely," he said.

More militant?

Although Blake would like to see the unions become more militant, he has serious doubts that this will be the case.

"It all comes down to a question of solidarity which unfortunately has never been big in Switzerland," he told swissinfo.

"The situation in the workplace has never really been bad enough to make people worry about solidarity. With unemployment at the rates they are in Switzerland, most people aren't concerned about their jobs to want to join a trade union," he feels.

The unemployment rate for March stood at 2.6 per cent of the working population.

Collective agreements

Part of the reason for much of the industrial peace in Switzerland is due to the large number of collective agreements reached between the unions and employers.

In fact, since the peace accord in the engineering and watchmaking industry was reached in 1937, conflicts of interest between employers and employees have mostly been resolved peacefully.

In 1999, there were just five strikes in Switzerland, with 2,255 people involved.

"With the agreements, the right to strike has been virtually removed from Swiss industrial relations, so we can possibly embarrass employers but not really hurt them," Blake said.

The Swiss Trade Union Federation feels that the fall in numbers of union members is bottoming out and that new members can be gained from those working in the services sector, for example in the new technologies

However, a former secretary of the Federation, Beat Kappeler is not convinced that this will be a major source of new membership.

"On the one hand, they don't need it. They have very good wages or are seemingly independent. On the other hand, the language of the Swiss trade union leadership is quite socialistic and when it comes to equal salaries and being against the bosses, this doesn't appeal to workers in the new sectors," he commented.

Wrong address

Stéphane Garelli, a professor at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, told swissinfo that the unions had not found the right way to address the needs of white-collar workers.

"I have the feeling that the trade unions have had difficulties to identify the problems of white collar workers and to adapt their message to this new type of constituency," he said.

However, he pointed out that the unions had done much to help Swiss competitiveness.

"The unions in Switzerland have always played a very positive role and the dialogue between the unions and the companies has always been considered to be very fruitful," he said.

Alexandre Plassard from the Swiss Employers' Association in Zurich also underlined the useful role the unions play.

Problems rare

"At present we have over 1,000 collective agreements in Switzerland and they are regularly renewed without problems. I would say the cooperation on this is good and we have rarely any problems," he said.

With the principle of a constructive social partnership in a charter, Plassard said the Association saw no reason why relations should change much.

"Of course in the future we expect the unions to ask for wage increases or shorter working weeks but this is quite normal," he added.

by Robert Brookes

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