Trade Unions

Workers’ organisations founded at the end of the 19th century were committed to the social protection of their members. Their mutual provident schemes and political initiatives have made the trade union movement an important stakeholder in Swiss social security.

The first trade unions emerged in the second half of the 19th century from professional bodies in the printing trade, construction, timber, metal, watchmaking and textile industries. In 1880, the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (SGB) encompassed several unions aligned with the social democrats, while the Christian unions united within the Christian-Socialist Federation of Trade Unions (CSG) in 1907, which was closely related to the Catholic Conservative People’s Party. A tenth of the working population were organized in trade unions in 1920, mostly in unions represented by the SGB. Consequently, the number of members in the Christian unions and the Union of Swiss Employee Associations (VSA) also grew. Almost a quarter of the workforce was union members in 1960. Membership figures fell at the end of the 1990s; only one in ten workers were still organized in union, two thirds of which in an SGB union. The VSA and Christian unions (subsequently merging to become Travail.Suisse in 2003) shared the remainder between them.

The creation of mutual aid funds and the promotion of the welfare state

Unions dedicated themselves to the financial and other security of their members by organizing their own social insurance schemes. They were skeptical of initial governmental social insurance efforts, regarding them often as competition. But by the second half of the 20thcentury, unions increasingly favored the expansion of government-sponsored social security schemes. 

At the time of their foundation, trade unions set up mutual assistance funds to protect their members against risks such as unemployment, illness, accident and disability, as well as old age and death. The importance of these insurance and assistance funds extended far beyond the mere protection of their members. They also served a purpose in the recruitment and retention of new members and allowed trade unions to exert influence on the general wage level, for instance by attempting to limit wage dumping in times of high unemployment.

The small number of mutual assistance funds members and the low wages earned by workers at the beginning of the 20th century resulted in union schemes facing acute financial difficulties. While labor leaders called for public subsidies, the majority of mutual funds feared that state intervention would infringe on their autonomy as their activities would be monitored and they would be obliged to accept ‘bad risks’. The unions also wanted to continue to use their funds as a means of recruiting and retaining members. The fact that workers managed the assistance funds significantly influenced trade union policy preferences in terms of social security.

On the one hand, trade unions called for the state to assume occupational accidents; on the other, Christian unions in particular were opposed to state social insurance that would have threatened their own accident and health funds. Despite these reservations, the majority of trade unions endorsed Lex Forrer, although voters rejected it in 1900. Most trade unions also supported the minimal version of the health and accident insurance bill adopted in 1912. At the end of the 1960s, the SGB and Swiss Social Democratic Party launched an initiative for compulsory health insurance, which voters largely rejected in 1974. Trade union health funds ultimately gave way to other private insurers.

Trade unions demanded state subsidies for their unemployment funds; a demand that was met in 1924. These subsidies were vital for their economic survival. A majority of union leaders, particularly those who managed the most important unemployment funds, were against all forms of centralization or nationalization of insurance until the 1970s, although this would have resulted in better insurance coverage. In the case of the 1976 revision, when unemployment insurance became compulsory, trade union representatives demanded improved benefits, though simultaneously ensuring sufficient room within the new organization of insurance for their own unemployment insurance schemes.

In old age provision, workers’ insurance funds were only established late and they competed with the pension funds managed by employees and life insurers. The introduction of old age insurance was one of the demands asserted in the national strike of 1918. Trade unions supported the AHV proposal rejected in 1931 as well as the subsequent bill accepted in 1947 – indeed, with even greater conviction. Despite the substantial backing of the AHV by the SGB, there were also a number of reservations, especially on the part of the metal and watchmaking industry: industry representatives (unsuccessfully) advocated the introduction of paritary pension funds to supplement the labor peace agreement signed in 1937. As it happened, trade unions were in favor of joint-management of occupational pension funds, which explains their approval of the three-pillar model at the beginning of the 1970s and their defense of existing occupational provision in order to supplement the AHV. In the 1960s, trade unions were also involved in initiatives for improving AHV pensions.

Within the feminist movement of the 1970s, committed woman trade unionists gave new momentum to the calls for maternity insurance. OFRA, a feminist organization which emerged in 1977 in the context of the Progressive Organisations of Switzerland (POCH), decided, as its first act, to launch a popular initiative to protect maternity. It received support for this from other organizations. After a long and intense campaign, the woman trade unionists were crucial in the acceptance of maternity leave in 2004.

Workers’ organisations have been opposing cutbacks in social policy since the 1990s. They supported various reforms including the acceptance of a compulsory health insurance in 1994, the unemployment insurance reform in 1995 and maternity insurance in 2004.

In 2004, unions helped to prevent a bill which would have increased women’s retirement age. In 2010, they rejected a reduction to the conversion rate in occupational provision. The SGB adopted a more offensive stance with the initiative ‘AHV plus’, while striving to improve pension benefits.

Improving the terms and conditions of employment through collective bargaining agreements 

Supplementing individually concluded contracts with collective master agreements – to prevent adverse conditions of employment from being imposed on workers – is an additional area of trade union activity. These collective agreements are worked out between the unions and the employers’ associations. They contain provisions on wages and working hours as well as on the reciprocal rights and duties of the contracting parties. Since 1941, it has been possible in Switzerland to declare such collective bargaining agreements between individual employers and their employees as generally binding. In such cases, a process involving trade union and employer representatives, along with the state authorities, is required. The first such collective agreements were signed in the second half of the 19th century. A number of collective agreements were concluded in commercial and industrial occupations during the 20thcentury, and since the Second World War, in export industries as well. Former state enterprises, once privatized, have also introduced similar collective agreements. However, in negotiating collective agreements since the 1990s, employees for the first time have had to accept worsened employment conditions. 

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Association pour l’étude de l’histoire du mouvement ouvrier (AEHMO 2011), Syndicats et politique sociale, Lausanne ; Boillat Valérie et al. (2006), La valeur du travail, Lausanne ; Clivaz Jean (1980), l’Union syndicale et la sécurité sociale, In Union syndicale suisse (éd.), Un siècle d’Union syndicale suisse 1880-1980, 103-126, Fribourg ; De Nicolo Marco (1962), Die Sozialpolitik des Schweizerischen Gewerkschaftsbundes (1880-1960), Winterthur.