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Editorial: Why are there rarely strikes in Switzerland?

At a time when almost every day there are news of strikes in Portugal the question arises why in Switzerland there are virtually no strikes. The right to strike is in Portugal and in Switzerland a constitutional right. Article 28 of the Swiss constitution describes the conditions for the legitimacy of a strike*:

“paragraph 2: Disputes must wherever possible be resolved through negotiation or mediation;

paragraph 3: Strikes and lock outs are permitted if they relate to employment relations and if they do not contravene any requirements to preserve peaceful employment relations or to conduct conciliation proceedings. ”
The strike as a instrument of labor law fight is only allowed as a last resort.

The difference cannot have its origin in the nature of a Swiss or a Portuguese worker. There are nearly three hundred thousand Portuguese in Switzerland and they are highly appreciated as arduous and reliable workers. Even a few weeks ago the Portuguese citizen António Rodrigues was awarded by its employer Schindler for its outstanding professional performance, among 2,700 workers of that company in Switzerland.

The difference must have other reasons, and I think they may be the following:

The availability of effective tools for the protection of labor rights: In Portugal, the current political system causes a certain antagonism between the government and the people. The four years following an election, the people have no direct democratic means to influence government decisions, be they on the employment rules of public employees, on privatization etc. In this situation, a government is easily blamed for everything because the people has no means to change anything. In Switzerland, the people have the democratic instruments that give it legislative powers such as the right of the popular initiative. This is a right but also a responsibility. No one can throw the blame on the government, because the one which is not happy is himself responsible to change. This means that he must convince a sufficient number of other citizens and to explain them how the change should be done. If at the end the majority of voters really choose this path they will have to live with the consequences.

Well-functioning labor courts: Often the strikers justify the strike with the violation of labor rights. But in a State of rule of law there are courts to resolve issues of alleged infringement of employment contracts. The court decides which part is right and which is wrong, and the loosing party must fulfill its obligation, otherwise it would accumulate penalties with compensation payments. The use of the strike as a labor dispute instrument is not needed, because the courts decide and this decision is executed. But for that, you need to have courts that decide in due course, so that citizens can have confidence that the matter can be resolved by this way.

Personally I hate strikes. I think it is by nature a destructive instrument. Paralyse to damage. In fact, everyone loses. The parties, other affected citizens, the taxpayers and the country (and its image). I cannot understand the trade unionists who say that “the strike was a great success”, boasting a large number of participants. Sometimes I get the impression that criticizing a strike is nearly a taboo in the Portuguese society. A strike is always a failure, a sad thing, a proof that something is failing in a State.

To prevent strikes, it is necessary that both sides contribute to the social and labor peace. Workers must have effective instruments for the vindication of their rights, something which can be done by strengthening the democratic rights. Having no other effective instruments for their defense, people promptly strike, which in that perspective can be even somehow understandable.

On the other hand, and as a result of allocating more democratic rights to them, the people have to take responsibility for decisions made in their community. The more democratic a state is, the less antagonistic will be the relationship between the Government and the people. Everyone knows they are in the same boat, and destructive actions go against the interests of all.

* Download the Swiss constitution in English