Construction workers


If you ask yourself “what is the best cordless drill for DIY?”, then people from the construction industry would definitely know. However, work stoppages in the construction sector have risen sharply in Switzerland in recent days. The construction workers are protesting against the state without a contract.

If no compromise is found between the social partners, the extension of the agreement on the free movement of persons with the EU could be called into question in 2009.

“70% of construction workers are unionized. If we lose this battle, it could also have an impact on other sectors, as some employers want to introduce stricter regulations there as well,” says Jean-Claude Rennwald, member of the executive committee of the Unia trade union and Social Democratic National Councillor.

Because the social partners could not agree on certain adjustments, the collective employment contract, known in this industry as the national umbrella contract, was terminated by the Swiss Association of Master Builders at the end of September.

As a result, the 80,000 employees in the construction industry have been in a state without a contract since 1 October. However, the master builders have undertaken to maintain the previously valid working conditions.

Worried Minister of Economic Affairs

This situation also worries the Minister of Economic Affairs, Doris Leuthard. At the end of September, it declared that the law opening borders to workers in Europe and the accompanying measures were sufficient to prevent wage dumping.

In their view, the strained relations between trade unions and employers are a source of uncertainty that could have a negative impact on the free movement of persons.

The conflicts in the construction industry could indeed spread to the political field and thus the extension of the free movement of persons with the European Union (EU) to the new EU countries Bulgaria and Romania in 2009.

In this case, Switzerland could lose. A negative vote could also jeopardize the other bilateral agreements with the EU.

Because one thing is certain: the extension of the agreements is subject to an optional referendum and could be the subject of a referendum. 50,000 submitted signatures are sufficient.

The right-wing conservatives could try to enforce their vision of an independent, self-sufficient Switzerland. But the other side of the political spectrum, the left, could also reject the agreement.


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Central element

The majority of the Left Party and the trade unions had campaigned for the free movement of persons to come into force in 2002. A prerequisite for this, however, was the introduction of accompanying measures.

In the eyes of these circles, the collective employment agreement is a central element in the protection of employees. In their view, the accompanying measures are not sufficient.

In short, there will be no freedom of movement in 2009 without a CLA. “If there is no solution to this CLA conflict, employees will vote rather cautiously in 2009,” estimates Jean-Claude Rennwald. “It is still a little early to say that the unions would recommend a no. But the possibility exists.”

Dangerous game

According to the director of the Institute of Political Science at the University of Geneva, Pascal Sciarini, this threat could also be a war ruse. It had already become caught up in the question of accompanying measures.

“But the game could be dangerous for the left,” he explains. “Because if the employers don’t give in and the left makes good on its threat, it would become an ally of the right-wing conservatives. Does she have the courage to go there?” asks Sciarini.

The political scientist notes a greater potential for conflict between the social partners than in the reform of social services such as old-age and survivors’ insurance (AHV).

“You can see that the parties are less willing to compromise than before. In this context, employers may be tempted to use their intransigence to promote a conservative, liberal right-wing alliance led by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP).”

“It takes time”

Serge Oesch, a member of the board of directors of the Swiss Association of Master Builders, hopes that an agreement on the collective labor agreement can be found. But it is difficult today to say how much time this will take.

Jean-Claude Rennwald is also relatively confident that the conflict could be resolved positively. The upcoming elections are not entirely innocent of the current situation, he believes.

For Pascal Sciarini, there is no guarantee of a happy ending. “In my view, you accept the risk of failure. Neither camp wants to give the impression of giving in. And because of their internal differences, you can’t expect the government to get involved.”