In Switzerland, Construction Workers Are Refusing to Shoulder the Costs of the Crisis

Workers on Switzerland’s construction sites have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. Bosses’ efforts to use the crisis to undermine established labor rights have prompted an impressive wave of resistance.

Thousands of construction, logistics, and health care workers took to the streets of various Swiss cities in October 2021 to demand higher wages and better working conditions. (Philipp Zimmermann / Unia)

As in many countries, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic caught Switzerland off guard. The alpine confederation is only about half the size of South Carolina and boasts a population of just 8.6 million. Yet the effects of the virus have been highly diverse — in economic terms as well as for people’s health. But one thing has remained the same throughout Switzerland’s different regions and across each wave of the pandemic: the working class has borne both the physical and economic brunt of COVID-19.

At the start of the pandemic, Swiss news outlets carried dramatic pictures of construction sites with overcrowded lunch areas, filthy hygienic facilities, and even a lack of running water. These realities stood in stark contradiction to public officials’ ubiquitous calls for social distancing and responsible hygiene measures.

These pictures were representative of the experiences many workers faced. The construction industry, with its over eighty thousand mostly immigrant workers, was particularly exposed. Even though conditions took different forms from one workplace to another, workers faced at least one of two grim realities: either working under increasingly precarious and unsafe conditions or living in fear of losing their jobs and income. Public leaders’ calls for social distancing and working from home have no doubt been sensible. Yet they have left a bitter and cynical aftertaste in the mouths of hundreds of thousands of construction workers, logistics employees, and others who cannot make that choice.

Worker Protections

At the forefront of the fight for effective worker health protection were the Swiss unions — first and foremost the country’s biggest union, Unia. It organizes the private sector and is particularly strong in construction, as well as having a growing foothold in health care. During the first wave, the union built its strategy on three intertwined pillars: fighting for the introduction and enforcement of minimal health protection standards; ensuring the continuation of wage payments in the case of workplace closures; and preventing the economic costs of the pandemic from being shifted onto the shoulders of the working class.

Despite its small size, Switzerland is made up of four linguistic regions and twenty-six cantons (the equivalent of a US state), and has a highly federal form of government. While the union was far from able to secure all its demands on worker health protection, on a national level, it (along with other political actors) was able to assert enough pressure to ensure the government quickly adjusted its short-time work compensation system to more easily cover (part of) the wages of furloughed workers. In certain cantons with higher unionization rates, it was also able to temporarily close a broader range of workplaces than was nationally mandated, thus providing more time to implement the introduction and enforcement of effective health measures. In other cantons, it also achieved joint union-employer inspections of health regulations, thus giving the union more power to directly intervene in (the many) cases of inadequate protective measures at work sites.

That said, the country’s conflicting realities were mirrored in the union as well. For example, during the first wave, Italian- and French-speaking union locals, whose areas were more severely hit at the outset, but also enjoy stronger political representation of labor, had little understanding for the fact that union locals in German-speaking cantons were not able to close all their construction sites. However, a large proportion of workers in these latter regions were less inclined to fight for total work-site closures so long as minimal standards of protection were being observed. Yet, as the pandemic continued, these differences gradually diminished as work sites in the Italian- and French-speaking regions also reopened, vaccination rates started to rise, and organized labor increasingly set its sights on economic questions.

Class Struggle, From Above and Below

Besides the disputes in the realm of health protections, the pandemic has also brought about an intensification of class conflict in general. While this involves questions of who is to pay for the economic costs of the crisis, it has also seen increased class struggle from above. Employers are dusting off old lists of demands they have long dreamt of turning into reality — and now they’re attempting to force them through under the cover of the pandemic.

On the one hand, this has been fought out on the floors of Switzerland’s parliament. Right-wing MPs have submitted parliamentary motions demanding significantly more flexible working-hour regulations. While the Right has sought to legitimize these demands in the language of supposed economic necessities owing to the pandemic, these motions are for the most part mirror images of failed ones submitted years before.

At the same time, certain elements of Swiss as well as wider European capital attempted to use Switzerland’s negotiations for a so-called institutional framework agreement with the European Union — of which Switzerland is not a member but with which it has a complex web of bilateral agreements — to dismantle Swiss wage-protection laws. While Swiss unions support regulated relations with the EU, and especially free movement laws for immigrant workers, they vehemently opposed the agreement that was actually tabled, which undermined wage-protection measures. Far from representing a nationalist agenda, Swiss unions’ resistance to the measures enjoyed the explicit support of a wide range of labor unions from neighboring countries. Swiss unions are now widely credited with bringing about the ultimate collapse of the negotiations this spring.

Besides these political skirmishes, employers in certain industries have also gone on the offensive. The construction employers’ association has proven particularly aggressive in this regard. Only weeks after launching a PR campaign in 2020 that bought newspaper ads thanking construction workers for their efforts during the pandemic, they used wage negotiations with the unions to publicly demand blanket pay cuts for all construction workers. Despite hardly having a reputation as a particularly progressive country, wage cuts are a clear taboo in Switzerland. The union, of course, rejected this demand, and the negotiations broke down later that year.

Construction employers have since continued their saber-rattling and have even threatened to do away with the industry’s collective labor agreement if the unions do not give in to employer demands — a further sign that the industry’s contract renewal negotiations, which will start in February 2022, will bring about an intense conflict between labor and employers. Construction is booming in Switzerland and is one of the few industries with majority unionization levels (around 70 percent) and the capacity to strike on a nationwide scale.

Turning the Tables

At the same time, capital has been waging this offensive against workers on both a political and industry level.

The country’s economy has not only recovered from the temporary shock of the pandemic but has started to achieve record growth levels in multiple industries. Apart from the food-service industry and airlines, the great majority of the economy is currently booming.

As a result, construction workers, health care personnel, and logistics employees are not amused that they were the ones working at the front line of the pandemic and are now being told to continue working under conditions that long before the pandemic were either dangerous, economically precarious, or both. As Sebastian, a forty-three-year-old construction worker and union activist put it,

For years now we’ve been talking about the problems on construction sites. Working nonstop during heat waves and then again during snowstorms, sleet, and hail. Bosses always telling us to work faster and faster. We’re slowly getting sick of it. And then the pandemic came. And we were the ones that continued working every day, often even harder than before. And so I think it’s only right that now we start talking about our demands — about worker demands.

Sandra, a fifty-one-year-old nurse in a retirement home, also active in Unia, has a similar reading of the situation:

From the start of the pandemic, we were the ones working day in and day out, literally at the front line. And the politicians and bosses gleefully called on people to clap for us and all the great work we, the health care workers, have been doing. And if clapping would solve the staff shortages, endless overtime, and low wages, then I’d be ecstatic. But it doesn’t. And now it’s time for some real change.

The country’s unions, and especially Unia, are now trying to turn that frustration into action. In a first step, fifteen thousand workers traveled to the capital city, Bern, in September to protest against raising the retirement age for women. And then again, on the last Saturday of October, thousands of workers from different industries gathered in five Swiss cities demanding pay raises and other improvements. The official rally cry of the demonstrations: “Now it’s our turn!”

Building on Class

Besides empowering workers to fight for their piece of the pie, pushing an economic and material agenda of “Now it’s our turn” may also serve a further goal. As in many countries, the insecurities and polarization produced by the pandemic have sometimes taken ambiguous turns — whether in the form of otherwise conservative forces suddenly claiming to be critics of state surveillance or otherwise critical left-leaning actors jumping to defend every piece of government (in)action in the fight against the pandemic.

While the Right has seized on every opportunity to cast themselves as the supposed true opposition to the establishment’s countless wrongdoings, parts of the Left continue to find themselves falling into fatal traps of culture wars and pseudo-radical semantic debates — at best, moralizing instead of attempting to collectively move workers, and, at worst, alienating and dividing them.

Union activities such as those centered around the banner “Now it’s our turn” instead provide the labor movement and the wider left with a class-based orientation to continue building a movement more strongly rooted in working people’s daily lives.

Achieving substantial improvements will demand more than good rallying cries. But broader campaigns such as this also provide a useful framing for union organizers’ interactions with people at their workplaces and in community centers — interactions that are crucial for building the necessary relationships with the working class. This will involve endless instances of sometimes difficult, yet often inspiring, talks with workers — the kind that veteran organizers know only too well. This is the only way to develop a labor movement both rooted in and trusted by the working class.