Stop Using “Europeanism” to Undermine Workers’ Rights

Plans for closer ties between Switzerland and the European Union threatened a bonfire of Swiss labor law. Liberals attacked trade unions for holding up the talks — but organized labor was right to prioritize workers’ rights above the European project.

A union protest symbolizing a “red line” of not negotiating with the EU over Switzerland’s wage protection laws. (Unia)

“I don’t always agree with everything you guys do, but the stand you guys took in the negotiations with the EU over our wages was simply great. You took a lot of flak, but you didn’t budge. And that saved our future.” In his mid-forties, construction worker Thomas’s comments to the union organizer visiting his site referred to a heated political clash over Switzerland’s relations with the European Union.

While the Alpine state is not a member of the continent-wide bloc, recent years have seen more formalized ties developing. For most of the last decade, Switzerland has been in negotiations with the EU over a so-called “institutional framework agreement” outwardly designed to stabilize and advance relations between the two. Yet Swiss labor unions opposed the deal that was ultimately tabled, which would have dealt significant blows to existing wage protection laws.

When Switzerland finally decided to scrap the proposed deal last May, it represented the culmination of a stand-off between various actors who took opposing sides for varied reasons, from trade unions to the right-wing opponents of the European project. But the battle over Switzerland’s relationship with the EU, and what it means for workers’ rights, has also revealed very different perspectives on what it means to be on the Left.

From Rigid Quotas to Free Movement

Last year’s showdown was a key milestone in Switzerland’s changing relations with the EU. Over two decades these ties have proceeded through a complex web of bilateral agreements, affecting various policy areas ranging from immigration and trade to cooperation agreements between government agencies.

This wasn’t always the case. Up until 2002, immigration in Switzerland was largely determined by a quota system and the so-called “seasonal worker law.” The system was not only characterized by annual quotas, based on the needs of employers in various industries, but also enabled the practically limitless exploitation of immigrant workers. These workers, who lacked permanent residency and were often housed in cold and damp “barracks,” had far fewer rights than their Swiss colleagues, and were separated from their families, who were unable to follow them into the country. Despite an ambiguous history when it came to supporting immigrant workers, the Swiss labor movement, which lurched to the Left in the 1980s, was at the forefront of the struggle to replace this system with more humane and pro-worker legislation.

The rigidity of the system troubled certain parts of Swiss capital, too. Uninterested in being left behind in an increasingly globalized world, these sections of capital sought closer relations with the EU. Yet, after closely losing a popular vote to join the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, full EU membership was off the table. In 1994, Switzerland and the EU began negotiations on their future relations, which concluded in a series of bilateral agreements. It saw the abolition of the seasonal worker law and its replacement with a system of free movement of workers between Switzerland and the EU.

The unions, who now had a sizable and active immigrant base, were ecstatic about the end of the hated seasonal worker law — and supported a system of free movement. But they were not naïve. Given that the economies of Switzerland’s neighbors had significantly lower wages, a liberalization of the labor market also represented a potential threat to the conditions of workers in Switzerland — both immigrant and Swiss-born.

This was the context in which unions made what then-labor leader Andreas Rieger termed a “power play” that led to a historic win for workers. Due to the country’s institution of putting a wide range of laws to popular vote, the bilateral agreements had to be ratified by the Swiss public. And while the political center supported the agreements, the nationalist right vehemently opposed them. With the lost EEA vote from 1992 still fresh in the memory, the political establishment was nervous about the outcome.

Organized labor saw an opportunity and seized it. As a condition for supporting the bilateral agreements, the labor movement insisted on the introduction of wage protection laws. The resulting legislation, known as the “accompanying measures,” represented a leap forward for labor laws in Switzerland — a set of protections unique by international comparison. Not only were mechanisms put in place to expand inspections of labor regulations, but the measures also led to a significant increase of the share of the economy covered by industry-wide collective contracts. Since then, the unions have managed to continually advance these protections.

Worker Rights Under Attack

Despite these victories, the accompanying measures have been anything but unchallenged. Especially for those sections of capital in alliance with the nationalist right, they represent the ultimate disaster — better labor laws in combination with more rights for immigrant workers. This nationalist-neoliberal alliance has since fought both with PR campaigns and popular referendums. And despite the polls, in 2014, the nationalist-conservative Swiss People’s Party controversially won a vote calling for a return to the immigration quotas of the past. While the implementation of this vote was eventually watered down by parliament, it was a clear sign that not all working people had been convinced that the current system was working in their favor. Arguing for “protecting wages, not borders,” unions used this defeat to demand that the country’s wage protection laws be enhanced even further.

Yet, while the accompanying measures have been under fire from the most aggressive sections of Swiss capital, European capital also decided it had had enough of what it sees as an unnecessary obstacle to higher profits.

In 2014, Switzerland and the EU began negotiations on an institutional framework for their wide range of bilateral deals. Among other things, the EU demanded Switzerland slash a number of key elements of the accompanying measures, such as the existing prior notice for EU companies working in Switzerland, and reduce the number of inspections in general. Furthermore, it demanded that the EU’s Court of Justice be authorized to determine which aspects of the country’s wage protection laws were legitimate — and which not. Considering that this court has in the recent past made shocking anti-worker rulings, the writing was on the wall for the accompanying measures.

The issue then escalated dramatically. For despite having repeatedly given assurances that the country’s wage protection laws were not up for negotiation, in June 2018, Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis suddenly made public statements ridiculing aspects of the accompanying measures and signaling that he too was open to weaker wage protection laws. When negotiations with the EU ultimately concluded in the fall of 2018, the unions saw their worst fears confirmed: significant cutbacks to the accompanying measures and the authority of the anti-worker European Court to decide the future of wage protection laws in Switzerland.

The Swiss union movement quickly moved to organize the resistance. Besides openly declaring the foreign minister a “risk to Switzerland,” it initiated public rallies as well as stabilizing alliances with left-wing parliamentarians. It also threatened to organize a referendum forcing a popular vote on the matter.

National conservatives led by the far-right Swiss People’s Party were also against the deal — and flirted with a return to the days where immigrant workers had fewer rights and the accompanying measures were yet unheard of. But the unions opposed it for very different reasons. They supported stable and good relations with the EU and were not against a framework agreement per se — but the condition for such consent was a real and effective protection of workers’ wages in Switzerland.

Following the principle of “equal pay for equal work in the same place,” Swiss unions won the enthusiastic support of other unions in Europe as well as progressive political forces in the European Parliament. Emphasizing that this was no fight between Switzerland and the rest of Europe, but one between neoliberal forces and the defenders of workers’ rights, Swiss labor made it clear that its opposition was internationalist in character.

Liberal Left Maneuvers

Whilst openly neoliberal forces in Switzerland and the EU represented a driving force in the developments above, certain political currents who would no doubt consider themselves “progressive” backed them up as well — attacking the unions’ stance as conservative and protectionist. Especially the centrist Green Liberal Party criticized what it saw as an “isolationist alliance” between the Left and the Right, and accused the union movement as well as the Social Democratic Party of “dogmatic resistance” against the framework agreement.

There were, however, also some prominent members of left-wing parties questioning labor’s opposition to the agreement. Citing alleged advantages in the deal, these figures downplayed the threats to Switzerland’s wage protection laws and even suggested — very much in line with the narrative pushed by neoliberals — that Switzerland’s wage protection laws may indeed be legally questionable. They argued that while the EU’s demands did represent less strict measures, at least they would be contractually agreed upon and even went as far as to speak of a “perception disorder” on the Left for not seeing the positive aspects of the deal.

Representatives of this current were appalled that the parties of the Left were supporting the unions’ stance and emphasized that besides wage protections, good relations with the EU had to remain a priority. Later on, certain figures even publicly accused union leaders of being “nostalgic” and even of being “in bed with right-wing populists.”

Neoliberal commentators gleefully cheered on these developments and urged the Social Democrats to “free themselves from the shackles of the unions” and their “backward thinking.” This call was echoed by some within the Social Democratic Party in thinly veiled dissociations from the unions proclaiming that while the two had long been important allies, more “independence” from the unions was needed as the party “does not always have the same interests as the unions.”

It was in this sense that labor was faced with both the more explicit anti-worker stance of the neoliberals as well as with the more politically correct and subtle, yet just as elitist “let them eat cake” mentality of parts of the liberal left. However, despite the significant pressure exerted on both the unions as well as on left-wing political parties to soften their position, leaders of both stayed true to the principle that the country’s wage protection laws were nonnegotiable.

Negotiations Collapse, Threats Remain

On May 26, 2021, the Swiss government declared that negotiations for an institutional framework agreement were to be terminated. Among other issues, the EU’s refusal to accept Swiss wage protection laws was given as a prominent reason, pointing to the decisive role of the unions in torpedoing the deal.

Yet there was no time for the unions to rest on their laurels. In response to the crashing of the deal, prominent leaders of the right-wing Liberal Party have demanded a “brutal workout program” in order to keep Switzerland competitive on the global market: cutbacks to labor rights, more flexible working hours and tax cuts for corporations.

In Switzerland’s so-called concordance system of governance, the country’s largest parties are all integrated into power-sharing, rather than there being a government party and a rival in opposition as in most parliamentary systems. But, while the Liberal Party’s demands will not be automatically translated into reality, they do very much show the current mindset of the neoliberal right.

Now, seven months since the negotiations’ collapse, the questions of Swiss-EU ties remains omnipresent — and new proposals of how to proceed are presented on an almost daily basis. While some on the far right dream of scrapping the free movement of workers, some on the liberal left see full membership of the EU as the solution. Neither option is really on the horizon in the current political atmosphere; but these terms of debate do threaten to impose themselves over the core workers’ rights issues defended by unions.

What’s “Progressive”?

Despite the attacks on the unions and their political allies, this episode has had several positive ramifications. First and foremost, it was a unique opportunity to show working people that it was the Left that stood up for their rights — be that against neoliberal forces within the country, but also against those from outside. If anything, the political establishment’s rants against the unions only reinforced the feeling that the union really was fighting for their rights.

It was furthermore an opportunity for the Left to show that opposition to such threats can be answered using an internationalist response. The union made it clear that it was fighting for all working people in Switzerland, no matter the color of their passport. It underscored this by bringing labor unions of neighboring countries into the struggle, thus showing that this was not simply a fight between Switzerland and the EU, but between above and below. It surely irked many self-proclaimed progressives to be against something which the far right was also against. Yet such an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic simply erases any independent space to assert workers’ own interests.

Most importantly, however, the entire episode posed the question of what it means to be on the Left. By unequivocally standing up for workers’ basic material interests, unions and their political allies drove home the point that class politics must be the main compass for any left that hopes to become a mass movement capable of shifting power relations in society as a whole. In a time where postmodern semantics question the relevance of class politics – castigating it as “conservative” and “nostalgic” much like the unions’ critics in this episode — this point can hardly be overstated.

So, instead of attempting to be “the champions of affluent cosmopolitanism,” as Ross Barkan aptly put it — the kind of “progressives” who congratulate themselves for being open-minded world citizens while having no idea what workers in their own city even earn — the Left must build a movement that truly puts working people’s interests first. For only then can it become relevant to most people’s everyday lives — and break out of the status of a noble yet powerless minority.