Swiss Workers, Out of Practice, Go on Strike

The New York Times, 5 November 2002

ZURICH, Nov. 4—Rocco Accetta's face registered excitement as he stood around with a group of friends in the foyer outside his union's local office.

It was the first time the 62-year-old Italian-born mason had gone on strike in the 36 years he had worked in Switzerland. In fact, it was the first time any union stopped working nationwide in Switzerland in 55 years.

In Italy they strike every other day, but it's the first time in my life I've gone on strike, Mr. Accetta said.

About 15,000 construction workers laid down their tools today in protest of their employers' refusal to sign a contract negotiated last March to allow early retirement. Daniel Lehmann, director of the employers' group, the Swiss Society for Master Builders, said a souring economy meant that pensions for early retirement would have to be lowered.

The country's last strike was in 1947, also by construction workers. The last general strike took place in 1918, when the Swiss Army fired on 250,000 protesting workers, killing three. In 1937, unions and employers signed an accord that became the foundation for enduring consensus-building.

While Italian and French workers became known for creative protests involving daylong traffic snarls or manure dumped at city hall, Switzerland continued its path of harmony and good will. That cooperation may be ending; other strikes—involving postal, telecom and retail workers—are being threatened for later this month.

The workers' inexperience with strikes showed today. While a group blocked traffic briefly on a major highway near Zurich, and another near Geneva did the same, the 4,000 men at the Zurich union hall stood around smoking cigarettes, drinking colas and waiting in line to collect one day's strike pay of about $80. About 200 did march up the city's swank Bahnhofstrasse, interrupting tram service.

Lack of practice was not the union's only obstacle.

Construction workers are often from other countries. In the Zurich local hall, not a single native Swiss voice could be heard. Leaflets were handed out in Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Serbo-Croatian and Albanian. Union slogans were posted on the wall in those languages as well as German and Turkish. Speeches were delivered with passion in a variety of languages. Applause came from various regions of the hall, depending on who could understand the speaker.