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Workers find new strength in numbers

Renzo Ambrosetti has the weight of more than 200,000 workers behind him

(swissinfo.ch)

The biggest trade union in Switzerland’s history, Unia, came into existence on Saturday with the merger of four unions.

Co-president Renzo Ambrosetti told swissinfo that he hoped labour relations would remain peaceful but that Unia would not be intimidated by “neo-liberal ideologues”.

The new union promises to be a formidable fixture on the political and economic landscape, representing workers from the construction and engineering industries as well as the retail and catering sectors.

The sheer size of the new union should increase workers’ bargaining power significantly. They will also have the advantage of being able to stay with the same union throughout their careers, even if they change jobs.

Unia’s two leaders – Ambrosetti, 51, and Vasco Pedrina – hail from Italian-speaking canton Ticino. But, says Ambrosetti, both are “used to dealing with the Swiss-Germans”, who dominate the country’s industry.

swissinfo: You are now head of a union with over 200,000 members and more than 900,000 employees - a giant in Swiss terms. How does it feel being in this position?

Renzo Ambrosetti: I’m very happy. But of course it’s also a big responsibility. Both our members and the public have high expectations of Unia.

And we’re aware that employers are watching us with caution and concern. This makes us think that we’re on the right path because if we weren’t noticed by our social partners, something would be wrong.

swissinfo: What does the merger mean for the members who have been absorbed into Unia?

R.A.: There are a number of advantages for the members. The new union has clearly defined strategic objectives. First of all, we want to be even closer to our members at their place of work and in the various regions. By uniting two large union structures, as well as smaller unions, we can exploit synergies more effectively.

We have around 100 secretariats throughout the country. The services we have provided to our members in the past will be guaranteed and we hope to develop them even further.

Thirdly, we want to expand our activities in terms of collective employment contracts. This means both consolidating and improving the contractual services where these already exist and, at the same time, gaining a foothold in certain professional sectors which are currently devoid of union support or where the contractual services are inadequate.

I’m thinking of the tertiary sector, in particular. Here, limited employment contracts are very common, and employees could benefit greatly from a union presence. It is also a sector that is expanding.

swissinfo: You liken the birth of Unia to a strategic project. Are there not also financial reasons for the merger?

R.A.: No, the merger was not the result of financial reasons, unlike in many other European countries, where unions often joined forces because they were experiencing financial problems.

Our war chest, however, was quite full, and the same goes for the GBI (construction and chemicals industry union). We could have continued to operate independently for decades, although we would not have been able to meet the strategic goals I mentioned. In fact, competition between us would have increased.

In any case, when we speak of a merger, it’s not like a merger in the private sector. We followed a process that was approved democratically by the grassroots. It was not a decision taken by a board of directors meeting behind closed doors. So really one should speak of integration rather than a merger.

swissinfo: There’s been much talk of the differences in culture among the unions. Some are associated with industrial peace while the GBI is known for taking a more combative stance. Do these differences still exist? And if so, what effect will they have?

R.A.: These are really platitudes more than anything else, even if there is some historical basis to them. The GBI also respects industrial peace when the situation permits. By contrast, in recent years, the SMUV has demonstrated its ability to mobilise its members and to fight.

Unia has made a bet – and it’s one we intend to win – that we will get these two cultures to work together. Not so that one excludes the other, but so that the future identity of Unia can take the best of the different identities, experiences and unions that are participating in this project.

In recent years we have worked together and offered each other support. Certain fears and prejudices have now been eliminated. The more militant factions are also realising that the basic problems are the same for everyone.

swissinfo: You said the birth of Unia was watched with some concern by employers. Do you think that relations between the social partners will change with the creation of Unia?

R.A.: It depends. I’m confident that with intelligent employers who recognise the usefulness of having representative unions, relations will continue to function properly. And we too need representative social partners.

However, we will have problems with neo-liberal ideologues and those who favour less state intervention or who are out to destroy social rights that have been fought for and acquired. We will have problems with the rightwing Swiss People’s Party and with the conservative groups – including those in employers’ associations – who fight us merely on principle.

In the employers’ associations, I hope that the clever people will have the say and not those who are looking for genuine confrontation. But if they want confrontation we are certainly ready and able to stand up to it. In the medium to long term, though, everyone loses out in a heated conflict.

swissinfo: Unia is now headed by two representatives of Switzerland’s Italian-speaking minority, yourself and Vasco Pedrina. Is this a coincidence or are there more far-reaching reasons?

R.A.: To some extent it’s a coincidence. I was the first Ticinese president of SMUV in the union’s 116-year history. In the GBI the situation is different. The Italian-speaking members have a greater weight. Vasco Pedrina is already the second president from Ticino.

In my case, I think the fact that I am from Ticino and speak three national languages helped people to view me as an integrating force. And, because we are from Ticino and come from a minority culture, we are both used to dealing with the Swiss-German majority and used to mediating.

swissinfo-interview: Andrea Tognina

Key facts

Unia was formed from a merger of four trade unions from the construction, engineering, retail and catering sectors.
It has 200,000 members and claims to represent over one million workers.
It will take charge of negotiating about 1000 collective contracts for employees in several industries.

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