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New Alliances and Concentration: Swiss Trade Unions in a process of restructuring

Günter Braun

"Switzerland: Still as Smooth as Clockwork?" is the question posed by Robert Fluder and Beat Hotz-Hart in the title of their recently published contribution analyzing the development trends of industrial relations in Switzerland.

Since the peace accord in the engineering and watch-making industry was concluded in 1937, conflicts of interests between employers and employees were mostly resolved peacefully. In Switzerland, the foundation of industrial relations is a long-standing tradition of a pragmatic policy based on agreements within the framework of a pronounced social partnership. There are hardly any cases of industrial action; Switzerland belongs to those countries in the world with the smallest number of strikes.

It is true that, due to the economic crisis, the bargaining environment became tougher in the 90s and resulted in an increase in protests on the part of the Swiss labour force as well as demonstrations and individual strikes against wage cuts and deregulation (Official statistics documented three cases of labour conflict in 1996 with 5,900 workers and employees in five companies participating, Statistical Yearbook 1998, 165). These actions, however, cannot be regarded as a sign of a general increase in conflict; they signal even less that there is a shift by unions to a militant strategy (Fluder 1998, 158).

Even though some regional unions have meanwhile asked for a tougher stance, the "cooperative relations between the social partners still predominate, reinforced by the integration of the professional representatives of each side in a network of policy-making institutions" (Fluder and Hotz-Hart 1998, 279). Altogether, the authors therefore come to the conclusion that the question posed in the title of their contribution can be answered with a "yes" as regards collective bargaining: "Swiss industrial relations are undergoing a minor upheavel. (...) There has been a certain increase in conflict, but in general there remains a strong commitment to find consensual solutions and corporatist institutions remain intact. In most areas the acceptance of social partnership remains" (ibid. 280).

In the 1990s, however, things no longer went as smooth as a clockwork for the Swiss trade unions. Since the beginning of the decade the impacts of industrial change and the economic crisis have been weakening the position of the unions. Many unions had suffered considerable membership losses in the last few years; due to financial losses the existence of some of them was even threatened. This development is not a phenomenon typical of the Swiss trade union movement alone; collective organizations in most other European countries are facing the same problems (Hoffmann and Waddington 1998).

As a result of its structural weaknesses, however, the Swiss unions’ structure is particularly affected by the impacts of the employment crisis. As a reaction to the membership decline and the weakened effectiveness of trade unions, for the first time in five centuries a noticeable concentration of trade unions can be observed in Switzerland. Before the current state of this restructuring process will be presented, some characteristics of the Swiss union landscape will be outlined.

With a union density of 22.5 % in 1994 (ILO-World Labour Report 1997-98 - calculated as union membership as % of wage and salary earners), the Swiss trade unions rank third from last compared to other European countries, followed only by Spain with 18.6 % and France with 9.1 %. With approximately 800,000 collectively organized manual and white-collar workers at present, the rate of membership is comparatively low in Switzerland. In addition, these members are organized in an extremely heterogenous and fragmented trade union system – a feature that has always been characteristic of the Swiss trade union movement. This diversity is a result of the establishment and continuous development of separate union branches and occupational unions, the formation of separate manual and white-collar organizations with their own umbrella confederations as well as of the division along political-ideological lines.

The Swiss Trade Union Confederation (Schweizerischer Gewerkschaftsbund - SGB), which is linked to the Swiss Social Democratic Party, was founded in 1880. It was and still is the largest umbrella confederation at the national level. At the beginning of this century a rival Catholic trade union movement formed; its industrial unions joined the Christian National Trade Union Confederation (Christlichnationaler Gewerkschaftsbund - CNG) in 1907. It is politically affiliated to the Christian Democratic People’s Party (Christliche Volkspartei - CVP). The Swiss Association of Protestant Workers (evangelischer Arbeitnehmerverband - SVEA) functioned as a mutualistic organization after 1907 and was formally established as a trade union in 1920; in 1982 it joined the CNG. In 1919 the National Association of Free Swiss Workers (Landesverband Freier Schweizer Arbeitnehmer - LFSA) was founded, which stood for national-liberal goals and peaceful industrial relations. The confederation for status-oriented white-collar workers in the private sector was founded in 1918, the Swiss White-Collar Federation (Vereinigung Schweizerischer Angestelltenverbände - VSA) (Fluder et al. 1991, 64-70).

The numerous organizations forming outside the confederations and associations contributed to a further diversification of the Swiss trade union system. Altogether 32 organizations, that is, most of the so-called "independent unions", were founded between 1919 and 1970. Up to 1918 there existed 15 independent unions, in the 70s and 80s another nine were established. By the mid-90s over 30 independent unions existed with a total of about 247,000 members (Fluder and Hotz-Hart 1998, 270). They organize special occupational or status groups, such as the banking personnel (Association of Banking Staffs - SBPV with 19,000 members in 1997), teachers (Association of Swiss Teachers / Dachverband Schweizer Lehrerinnen und Lehrer - LCH, 46,000), federal and community employees (Swiss Central Federation of State and Community Employees/Zentralverband Staats- und Gemeindepersonal Schweiz - ZV, 31,000), nurses and orderlies (Swiss Association of Nurses - SBK, 16,000), federal civil servants (Union of Federal Civil Servants - PVB, 16,000) or the police (Association of Swiss Policemen - VSPB, 19,500) (membership data: Bauer 1998, 22). Apart from the formation of different independent unions and a few mergers within the individual groups of trade unions, the structure of the Swiss trade union movement was not changed substantially between the 40s and the 90s.

Beside the high degree of fragmentation, the Swiss trade union movement is characterized by a low degree of vertical integration of the affiliates into the umbrella confederations (SGB, CNG, VSA). Their most important function is the representation of interests at the political level, for example in the field of social policy or in the area of labour legislation. Apart from that they have barely any authority as regards the integration of affiliated unions or sanctions towards them, since these have the determinative responsibilities and the largest part of the resources (Fluder 1996, 419).

It fits into the picture of political-ideological dividing lines that have hardened over decades and heterogeneous organizational structures that the trade unions or trade union groups have not been able to develop general cooperation structures. The only "Agreement on Cooperation" worth mentioning was concluded between the SGB and the VSA in 1928. It was renewed in 1975 for the last time and terminated by the employees’ confederation in 1992. This was obviously the result of increasing competition in the field of recruiting white-collar workers (ibid.).

Cooperation between trade unions is more developed in the public sector where the unions, however, were able to establish themselves predominantly within the rivalling confederations. The Public Services Federation (Föderativverband des Personals öffentlicher Verwaltungen und Betriebe - FöV), which covers mainly SGB unions, and the less important Union of Christian Traffic and State Personnel (Verband des christlichen Verkehrs- und Staatspersonals - VGCV) have for a long time formed two "sectoral confederations for the federal staff". Originally the FöV had made efforts to create a unitary union for the federal staff; they failed, because the affiliates did not want to give up their autonomy (Fluder 1996, 281-96).

Against the background of changes in the public sector (privatization, job cuts), a coordination project including all four groups of trade unions formed in 1995 within the framework of the so-called "Ebenrain Conference" (named after castle Ebenrain in Sissach, where the first meeting took place). However, at present it just provides a platform for discussing common matters of concern. All other plans aimed at concentrating the dwindling powers in the altered economic, societal and political environment of the 90s have mostly been in keeping with the traditional confederations’ position (Fluder 1998, 161). A relativizing or even dissolution of rivalling confederations is not yet in sight, even though far-reaching changes in the labour markets as well as significant membership losses in the last few years have increased the necessity to modernize the organizational structures of the trade union movement.

Figure 1 shows the long-term development of membership and the accelerated membership decline in the most important confederations since the 90s. Altogether, they lost more than 75,000 members or 11 % of their membership between 1992 and 1997. With a minus of 16.7 % the development of the Christian National Trade Union Confederation (CNG) was the most negative one, followed by the Swiss White-Collar Federation with a loss of 9.8 %. The membership of the Swiss Trade Union Confederation decreased by 9.4 % and fell, for the first time since 1953, below the 400,000 threshold. With a minus of 1.5 %, the independent unions were the only ones whose membership loss was rather moderate (Bauer 1998, 13).

These varying losses can, above all, be attributed to the trade unions’ differing degree of representation in the private and public sectors and their differing shares of collectively organized workers in the secondary and tertiary sectors (cf. Table 1). The core domains of the CNG- and SGB-affiliated unions are the industrial and manufacturing sectors, i.e., the sectors which are most badly affected by the employment crisis resulting from the transformation of an industrial into an information- and service-oriented society and the structural changes this entails. The traditional membership basis of the trade unions is diminishing, as the number of industrial workers continues to decrease. Thus the negative development of membership in the SGB unions in 1997 (15,643 = 3.8 %) was largely a consequence of the membership decline in the Union of Construction and Industry (Gewerkschaft Bau und Industrie - GBI). The largest SGB-affiliated union, the result of the merging of the Union of Textile, Chemical and Paper Industry (Gewerkschaft Textil, Chemie, Papier – GTCP) and the Union of Construction and Wood Workers (Gewerkschaft Bau und Holz – GBH), lost over 10 % of its members in 1997, a loss that is not surprising in view of the continuing crisis in the building sector and the drastic job cuts in the chemical industry (between 1991 and 992 the number of persons employed fell by 26.6 %). The GBI suffered almost three quarters of the total membership loss of all SGB-affiliated unions in that year (Bauer 1998, 3).

At the beginning of the 90s it waspartly possible to compensate for losses in the industrial sector by gaining members in the public sector. Whereas total membership in the secondary sector decreased by 65,000 between 1990 and 1997, total membership in the public sector increased by 30,000 (Fluder 1998, 157). Since there have also been job cuts on a large scale within the framework of drastic restructuring processes – concerning the Postal Services and the Railways (SBB), for example – the SGB- affiliated unions in particular cannot compensate for structure-related membership losses in the areas of industry and manufacturing.

To some extent the decreasing number of members is also a consequence of deficits in the trade union organization policy. It was, above all, the big confederations which failed for a long time to present adequate organization models for the expanding private service sector. The marked differences in the degree of organization between the private and the public sector – in 1996 about 20 % of all persons employed were organized in the private sector, about 35 % in the secondary sector, 42 % in the public sector – can to a high degree be attributed to the trade unions’ organizational deficits (Fluder 1998, 44). Before the "unia", a special service-sector union, was founded in 1996, the SGB was virtually not represented in this area. In 1997 the "unia" had recruited roughly 10,200 members and had closed the representation gap for the Swiss Trade Union Confederation.

The fact that the independent unions’ losses were considerably lower in the 90s, with some of them even gaining members, is closely linked to their concentrating on the public sector. Here they represent half of all collectively organized workers and are able to profit above all from the rapid growth of employment in the social services (education, health, welfare services) (Fluder 1998, 40).

There also are marked differences between the membership structure in the public sector and the private sector. Relatively few manual and foreign workers are employed in the public sector, while the share of pensioners (21 %) is considerably higher than in the private sector (11 %). In both sectors women are significantly underrepresented. It must be pointed out, however, that the share of women has steadily increased in the last few years. They accounted for 31 % of all members in the public sector (that is, 51 % of all persons employed in this sector), and for only 15 % in the private sector (35 % of all persons employed in the private sector) (Fluder 1998, 45).

As in other European countries, in Switzerland mergers have also become an important strategy of union modernization. In response to their weakened position, brought about by membership decline, financial losses and a reduced capacity to mobilize the movement, the CNG and SGB, in particular, have tended towards a concentration of forces.

The already mentioned merger of unions to form the GBI pioneered the reforms of trade union structures within the SGB. Two years after the formation of this multi-branch union, the 49th SGB Congress (1994) started a broad discussion about the development of its member unions: "The starting point of modernization and reform processes is the common will of all members to turn the SGB into a stronger federation which is able to act and push through its interests. (...) The Swiss Trade Union Confederation will modernize its structures at all levels continuously and consistently during the next few years" (quotation from Hoffmann and Waddington 1998, 305).

By the end of 1998, two mergers were, more or less successfully, executed within the SGB: the concentration of union forces in the media branch in the new Swiss trade union "Comedia" (The Swiss Media Union) and the amalgamation of several PTT associations (Postal, Telephone and Telegraph workers) to form the Communication Workers’ Union (Gewerkschaft Kommunikation) (see Table 2).

According to plan, in October 1998 the PTT unions and the Association of Swiss Air Traffic Control Personnel merged to form a union with about 45,000 members. In the project "Comedia", on the other hand, two partners withdrew during negotiations: the Swiss Association for Mass Media Workers (Schweizerisches Syndikat Medienschaffender - SSM) with about 3,000 members and the Swiss Association of Journalists (Schweizerischer Verband der Journalisten und Journalistinnen - SVJ) with roughly 6,000 members; in ballots membership in the new media workers’ union was voted down. Thus the concentration process in this area involved only four unions with 20,000 members altogether. Comedia was founded in Bern on December 12th, 1998.

Trade union structures were modernized more radically within the CNG. The first step to be taken in a far-reaching concentration process was the merging of all large CNG-affiliated private sector unions. Together with the National Association of Free Swiss Workers (LFSA) they founded the SYNA in 1998, a Christian union which covered several branches. With 85,000 members, SYNA has become the third largest force in the Swiss trade union landscape. Due to its size, it is able to carry out referenda and to play a decisive part in the determination of general conditions of employment. The second step towards a concentration of forces within the Christian confederation is planned to be the merging of all CNG-affiliated public sector unions. The first ones to form such a new unitary union with the name "Transfair" was the "Confederation of Christian PTT workers", then renamed to "Christian Confederation of Public Sector and Public Service workers". By the beginning of 2000 the partner unions GCV (traffic), VGB (federal employees) and VCHP (community and state employees) are planned to have joined. "Transfair" will then represent the interests of about 22,000 employees.

Another project that has long been planned and announced but not yet been realized is the merging of the Swiss Distributive Workers’ Association (Vereinigung des Schweizerischen Kaufmännischen Verbandes - SKV) – a member of VSA – with the Association of Independent Banking Staff (Unabhängiger Schweizerischer Bankpersonalverband). The product of this merger of white-collar workers’ unions (project name: "KV Tertia") would be an organization with about 85,000 members, another relatively large Swiss trade union.

Given the strongly fragmented trade union system in Switzerland that has for a long time remained practically unaltered, these reforms are remarkable. Compared to concentration processes in the Netherlands, Austria or Germany, however, Switzerland has a lot to catch up on. At the 50th SGB Congress (held in Davos, November 5th-7th, 1998) the then co-presidents (Vasco Pedrina and Christiane Brunner) took stock of the reform processes and emphasized: "We still are far away from achieving our goal to break up the corporatist isolation of individual unions in favour of a more inter-professional, confederatively organized trade union movement". According to the co-presidents, the aims in the near future should be to extend the SGB’s power to intervene politically, to strengthen considerably the capacity to mobilize support on the spot, and to force more vehemently the reform of trade union structures (SGB-congress documents in the Internet).

References and Sources

Bauer, Tobias 1998: Sieben Jahre Wirtschaftskrise zehren an der Substanz. Mitgliederentwicklung der Gewerkschaften 1997, SGB-Dokumentation No. 57, Bern: Schweizerischer Gewerkschaftsbund.

Bundesamt für Statistik (ed.) 1997: Statistisches Jahrbuch der Schweiz 1998/Annuaire statistique de la Suisse 1998, Zürich: Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Fluder, Robert 1996: Interessenorganisationen und kollektive Arbeitsbeziehungen im öffentlichen Dienst der Schweiz. Entstehung, Mitgliedschaft, Organisation und Politik seit 1940, Zürich: Seismo.

Fluder, Robert 1998: Politik und Strategien der schweizerischen Arbeitnehmerorganisationen. Orientierung, Konfliktverhalten und politische Einbindung, Chur u. Zürich: Rüegger.

Fluder, Robert and Beat Holz-Hart 1998: Switzerland: Still as Smooth as Clockwork?, 262-82. In A. Ferner and R. Hyman (eds.), Changing Industrial Relations in Europe, Oxford: Blackwell.

Fluder, Robert et al. 1991: Gewerkschaften und Angestelltenverbände in der schweizerischen Privatwirtschaft. Entstehung, Mitgliedschaft, Organisation und Politik seit 1940, Zürich: Seismo.

Hoffmann, Reiner and Jeremy Waddington 1998: Tendenzen gewerkschaftlicher Organisationspolitik in Europa. Gewerkschaftliche Monatshefte, Vol. 49, No. 5/98, 297-309.

International Labour Office (ed.) 1997: World Labour Report. Industrial Relations, Democracy and Social Stability 1997-98, ILO: Geneva.


Schweizerischer Gewerkschaftsbund/ Union Syndicale Suisse/Unione Sindacale Svizzera (SGB/USS). http://

Gewerkschaft Industrie, Gewerbe,
Dienstleistungen, (SMUV). http://

Verband des Personals Öffentlicher Dienste (VPOD)/Syndicat suisse des services publics (SSP). http://www.

Gewerkschaft Bau und Industrie (GBI)/Syndicat Industrie et Bâtiment (SIB).

Gewerkschaft Verkauf, Handel, Transport, Lebensmittel (VHTL)/Fédération suisse des travailleurs du commerce, des transports et de l’alimentation (FCTA).

Comedia - Die Mediengewerkschaft/Le Syndicat des Médias. http://www. man/welcome.html

Schweizerischer Eisenbahnerverband (SEV)/Fédération du personnel des transports. d/home.htm

Schweizer Syndikat Medienschaffender (SSM)/Syndicat suisse des mass média (SSM).

Christlichnationaler Gewerkschaftsbund der Schweiz (CNG)/Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens de Suisse.


Transfair - Christliche Gewerkschaft Service public und Dienstleistungen Schweiz. sys/index_de.html

Vereinigung Schweizerischer Ange-stelltenverbände (VSA)/Fédération suisse des sociétés d’employés (FSE).

Verband Angestellte Schweiz (VSAM).

Schweizerischer Kaufmännischer Verband (SKV) Société Suisse des employés de commerce (SSEC).

Union Helvetia (UH). /main_set.htm

Independent Unions

Dachverband Schweizer Lehrerinnen und Lehrer (LCH).

Zentralverband Staats- und Gemeindepersonal Schweiz (ZV)/Fédération centrale du personnel des cantons et des communes de la Suisse.

Personalverband der Bundesverwaltung (PVB)/Assocation du personnel de la Confédération (APC). http://www.

Schweizerische Kaderorganisation (SKO)/Association suisse des cadres (ASC).

Dr. Günter Braun,
D-68131 Mannheim
Tel.: 0049(0)621-292-1728
Fax: 0049(0)621-292-1723
E-mail: Gü

Günter Braun is political scientist and works as a researcher at the MZES. Currently he is conducting research on the trade unions in Europe.