1930–1940: The success story of Swiss social partnership – cooperation, not conflict

Swiss social partnership is seen as an important pillar of Switzerland’s economy, and is often held up as a success story. The signing of the peace treaty in the Swiss metal and mechanical engineering industry is considered to be a key moment in the history of Swiss industrial relations.

The peace treaty in the Swiss metal and mechanical engineering industry
The peace treaty in the Swiss metal and mechanical engineering industry was signed in 1937. Its aim was to secure industrial peace in Switzerland and, in subsequent decades, it would make a significant contribution to securing sustainable and positive economic growth in the country.

How did the peace treaty come about?
As in other countries, strikes were a common phenomenon at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. Over 2400 strikes took place between 1880 and 1914, with the fronts in the class war locked in a stalemate. The conflicts reached their climax in 1918, with 250,000 workers and trade unionists taking part in the Swiss General Strike and three people dying at the hands of the troops.

The social partners leave their fronts to negotiate
The fascist threat from across the border was intensifying, dictators were on the advance in Europe, Hitler banned the unions, and the Swiss franc saw a dramatic loss of value. Against the backdrop of social and economic uncertainty, unemployment and a decline in real wages, the Swiss government aimed to introduce mandatory arbitration, despite this instrument having been rejected by both the majority of employers and the unions. The social partners now set about strengthening contractual relations.

National Councillor Konrad Ilg (1877–1954, President of the Swiss Metalworkers’ and Watchmakers’ Union, SMUV) took the initiative and met with Ernst Dübi (1884–1947, President of the Association of Swiss Engineering Employers, ASM). On 19 July 1937, they signed a five-page agreement for the watchmaking and metal engineering industry. This document was binding for both parties, and stipulated absolute industrial peace and a multi-stage arbitration process for the subsequent two years. It also governed new rights and obligations, such as conflict resolution procedures, wage-setting, insurance, holiday pay and employee participation. In order to secure these provisions, the parties to the agreement each deposited a security of CHF 250,000.00 with the Swiss National Bank. The peace treaty forms the basis of the full Collective Labour Agreement in place since 1974.

Sources: Swiss Social Archives; the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER); Wikipedia, SWISSMEM

Read more about in the interview with Ivo Zimmermann, Head of Communications and member of Management at SWISSMEM, below.

The peace treaty in the Swiss metal and mechanical engineering industry

The signed peace treaty of 1937 (ASM copy) is on display at the Swiss National Museum Zurich.

«Mechanical engineering» specialized division: collaboration between the SNV and SWISSMEM

Standards establish uniform requirements for items and services. Standardization helps to improve the functionality of products, makes them safer and more efficient to use, and facilitates collaboration. In an international context, in particular, standards facilitate the interchangeability – and hence tradability – of products and services. The mechanical engineering industry is represented by its own specialized division within the SNV. For many years now, the SNV has been supervising the standards in place within the industry on behalf of SWISSMEM, and represents the standardization interests of the mechanical engineering industry in the European standardization body European Committee for Standardization, as well as at the international level in the International Organization for Standardization.

«Industrial peace represents a significant advantage for Switzerland as a country in which to work.»

An interview with Ivo Zimmermann, Head of Communications and member of Management at SWISSMEM, discusses the impact of the historical events of 1937 on Swiss social partnership today.

Picture caption: Ivo Zimmermann, Head of Communications and member of Management at SWISSMEM

1. SNV: The peace treaty of 1937 tackles nine articles or subjects over five pages – how long is the Collective Labour Agreement today?
Ivo Zimmermann: The Agreement currently comprises 58 articles and 2 appendices over 73 pages. The current Collective Labour Agreement can be found at this link.

2. SNV: What are the benefits of a Collective Labour Agreement?
Ivo Zimmermann: The Collective Labour Agreement for the mechanical, electrical and metal engineering industry (MEM industry) guarantees progressive employment conditions for the employees of participating companies. These employees, for their part, are required to respect absolute industrial peace, which means that work must not be disrupted by combative action. Industrial peace represents a significant advantage for Switzerland as a country in which to work.

3. SNV: How often is the Collective Labour Agreement renegotiated?
Ivo Zimmermann: Every five years as a rule. The current Collective Labour Agreement of the MEM industry (MEM Collective Labour Agreement) came into force on 1 July 2018, and will remain in force until 30 June 2023.

4. SNV: How intense are the negotiations?
Ivo Zimmermann: The contracting parties to the MEM Collective Labour Agreement are the ASM (SWISSMEM), the employees’ associations Employees Switzerland, the Swiss Association of Commercial Employees and the Swiss Management Organization, as well as the unions Unia and Syna. Each of these organizations brings its demands to the table; the negotiations are correspondingly long and intense.

5. SNV: Is SWISSMEM’s Collective Labour Agreement also binding for non-members?
Ivo Zimmermann: The MEM Collective Labour Agreement is not generally binding. Currently, it is applied by around half of the over 1100 SWISSMEM member companies.

6. SNV: How many strikes do you see each year?
Ivo Zimmermann: The Collective Labour Agreement stipulates absolute industrial peace, and no combative measures whatsoever are permitted within the participating companies. In the last 10 years, there have been only two serious industrial disputes in the MEM industry.

7. SNV: How well is the original peace treaty known today? Are SWISSMEM employees familiar with the story, for example?
Ivo Zimmermann: The staff at SWISSMEM are very familiar with the value and history of the peace treaty – the same goes for the employees of the MEM companies. The social partners also hold joint training courses on this topic for employee representatives.

8. SNV: How important is the agreement to avoid the use of strikes and lockouts in Switzerland?
Ivo Zimmermann: It is essential – absolute industrial peace is a significant advantage for Switzerland as a country in which to work, and can be the deciding factor when it comes to investing in Switzerland.

9. SNV: How often do employers and employees come together around the negotiating table?
Ivo Zimmermann: Swiss social partnership works well within the companies, with talks between employee representatives and company management being held on a regular basis. When differences of opinion occur, the employee representatives and company management attempt to resolve the issue at company level. If this is not successful, the Collective Labour Agreement defines clear processes for dealing with the matter in the context of association negotiations or, if necessary, before a court of arbitration.

Mister Zimmermann, thank you for this discussion.

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