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Unions win battle but not the war

Running on empty?

(Keystone)

Swiss trade unions have just celebrated two major victories in the construction and postal sectors.

But critics say they are continuing to see their powerbase eroded and are failing to make inroads in the service industry.

Swiss newspapers have made much of the unions' triumphs, coming at a time of growing industrial action across much of Europe.

"The Post Office caves in to the unions," wrote the "Tribune de Genève", after Post Office chief Ulrich Gygi abandoned plans to merge sorting centres.

The postal workers' success came just a fortnight after the Swiss Construction Workers Union (SIB) hammered out an agreement with employers over lowering the retirement age for construction workers.

"This success shows that the unions are gaining in importance. This tendency has been observed for several years," Ewald Ackermann, spokesman for the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), told swissinfo.

Unusual cases

But Beat Kappeler, a former trade union leader, says unions are failing to make their presence felt across all areas of the economy.

"In Switzerland, the unions are only strong in certain sectors, like construction and public services," he says.

Kappeler, who now works for the weekly "NZZ am Sonntag", believes that the two recent trade union victories are exceptions rather than the norm.

"They can also be explained by the bosses' clumsiness with the construction workers and political pressure in the case of the Post Office," he adds.

Peter Hasler, head of the Swiss Employers Federation, also considers the two events to be atypical.

"The Post Office case doesn't correspond to the normal market rules," he told swissinfo.

"As for the agreement with the construction sector, it came about after an exceptional breakdown in negotiations."

But others disagree. Jean-Claude Rennwald, a member of the board of the Swiss Union for Industry, Construction and Services (SUICS), insists union influence is on the rise.

"These cases aren't unusual. On the contrary, they show quite well that the trade union movement is regaining strength."

Increased lay-offs

Yet the fact remains that at the weekend voters backed government proposals to cut unemployment benefits in the face of strong union opposition.

Unions fiercely contested the changes, claiming they were ill-advised amid rising unemployment.

They have also failed to make a difference in the Bernese Jura where there have been mass lay-offs at Tornos, the machine-tool maker.

The national carrier Swiss also announced in November that it would be shedding some 300 jobs, and there have been further job cuts in the banking and new technology sectors.

For Kappeler, this represents the core of the problem. "The unions are not very active in the sectors where new jobs are being created and in those where the salaries are high," he says.

Hasler agrees: "In general, unions are losing members and don't have enough money to launch campaigns. This is something that we regret, because we need strong social partners."

The SFTU's Ackermann admits that the unions are finding it difficult to break into the service sector and are losing members in banking.

He also recognises that, in general, the number of those joining trade unions is decreasing while the number of those earning high salaries is increasing.

Changes in the economy

For his part, Kappeler stresses that changes in the economy are making life difficult for the unions.

"Entrepreneurs in Switzerland, like elsewhere, are rapidly reorganising their added value chains. All simple production is being moved outside Europe," says Kappeler.

"There is literally nothing left to negotiate on because in the post-industrial economy, this has all disappeared."

Paul Rechsteiner, head of the SFTU, admits that the current economic crisis and the climate of fear that it breeds are making life difficult for the unions.

Unions react

But the unions are in fighting mood. The SUICS's Rennwald points to the founding of the interprofessional union project as proof that the movement is heading in the right direction.

The project was launched by the SIB and the SUICS in September and is aimed at the tertiary sector.

Ackermann emphasises the recent creation of a union for those working in new information technology - //syndikat.

The union was launched in Zurich in January with the support of the SIB and the SUICS and the Communications Workers Union.

Hasler recognises these projects and the whole raft of restructuring that has been carried out by the unions.

"But it is too early to know if this strategy will pay off," he warns.

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

In brief

Unions have won two major victories in the construction and postal sectors.

But they are losing members and are finding it hard to attract members in the service sector.

The economic downturn has added to their problems.

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