Major strike shakes Switzerland - the Bellinzona railway workers

The canton Ticino, that part of Switzerland which speaks Italian, and that everyone considers a model of social peace and serenity, has been shaken by a trade union struggle that has no comparison in the recent history of the country. It is the struggle of a very militant section of the Ticino working class, the railway maintenance workers.

On March 7, the managing director of FFS-Cargo, that part of the Swiss state railway service that is dedicated to freight transport, announced a major restructuring, involving the closure of the Bellinzona maintenance workshops. Immediately the 420-strong workforce went on strike, occupying the workshops. From then on a mobilisation started which involved the whole population of the Ticino in a marvellous display of working class solidarity.

Demonstration in Berne on March 19

The article below [written on March 18], by our Swiss comrades of Der Funke, explains very well the reasons for the closure of the plant. The Bellinzona workshops do in fact make a profit, but at the same time FFS-Cargo has managed to run up debts of 190 million Swiss Francs. And of course, according to the logic of capitalism, those who have to pay for the crisis are the workers and not the managers!

The Bellinzona workers rejected the plan and during the month-long occupation, the struggle has grown in strength and intensity. On March 8 the first demonstration mustered around 8000 people. On March 19 six thousand workers and their families protested through the streets of the capital, Berne. Then on Sunday, March 30 twelve thousand people gathered in Bellinzona, by far the biggest demonstration that the Ticino remembers in its history.

Right from the beginning, the workers prepared themselves for a long dispute. The train tracks to the workshops were welded together to prevent any trains getting in or out. A strike committee was elected and was in charge of organising the struggle and negotiating with the management, while every decision was taken collectively by all the workers in mass meetings.

Solidarity committees were formed in every town and factory of the region. The total amount of money collected for the workers on strike was more than one million francs (more than 600,000 euros, or about 500,000 pounds sterling).

Demonstration in Berne on March 19

When one got off the train of this small town of less than 20,000 inhabitants during the days of the strike one easily get absorbed by the electrifying mood that gripped the place. From most of the windows and balconies you could see hundreds of red flags with the slogan "Hands off the Workshops". On every street corner you would come across workers collecting funds and signatures. Arriving at the workshops you also found a canteen which provided a daily meal at a cheap price for hundreds of people.

The working class has become the main protagonist of the political scene of the whole region. The discussions held in mass assemblies by the workers on how to go forward revealed some very advanced thinking. They put forward very advanced demands for the future of the plant.

They remained determined that the workshops should remain as part of the state railways, but they also took into account possibility that management was not going to change its mind. So they launched the idea of the creation of a technological-industrial area as part of the public transport system. This proposal included the expropriation of the workshops by the Canton Ticino administration. Under pressure from the masses from below, several regional MPs came out saying they agreed with this idea. Very quickly, within the space of 24 hours this demand was taken up by thousands of people. It was adopted as a "draft popular law" signed by five thousand people.

Demonstration in Freiburg on April 10

Faced with such determination on the part of the workers and with the risk that the struggle could spread to other parts of Switzerland (a demonstration had been scheduled for April 10 in Freiburg, for example), the head of the Federal Department of Transport (similar to a minister) Moritz Leuenberger took on responsibility for the negotiation himself and on Saturday, April 5, he withdrew the plan for job cuts proposed by FFS-Cargo.

"We have won a battle, now we have to triumph in the war," said Gianni Frizzo, chairman of the strike committee. Now a big debate is opening up about the future of the workshops, but it is clear that the workers will sit at this new negotiation table from a position of strength.

The workers have soundly defeated the bosses, showing that when the working class is on the move, there is no force on earth that can resist it. The effect of their militant struggle has been to shift the union leaders to the left, and this has also opened up big divisions inside the Socialist Party leadership. We have to remember that in the beginning Leuenberger had openly condemned the strike as a mistake, indicating he would not accept negotiations on the job cuts!

The struggle against all types of privatisation and for the introduction of workers' control in state owned companies has been greatly strengthened after this successful strike. We, the workers from all over Europe, have a lot to learn from the workers in the Canton Ticino.

Switzerland: Hands off the FSS workshops in Bellinzona

By Der Funke-Switzerland

More than two weeks ago a strike started in the maintenance workshops of the FFS-Cargo in Bellinzona [known as SBB-Cargo in German]. The demand of the strikers is clear: management must withdraw its plans to cut jobs. These workers have support from the length and the breadth of the canton Ticino (the only Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland). Ordinary workers, the cantonal government and even the bishop of Ticino, have all come out in support of the striking workers. This strike could set the tone for a wider strike movement and will certainly shape the consciousness of the Ticino workers for years to come. This is a first analysis of this industrial dispute on the part of the Swiss Marxist Tendency of Der Funke who also develop a perspective for the strike.


Hands off the workshops in Bellinzona

The FFS (Swiss Railways) have been state-owned since they were set up 1902. Until 1998 the FFS were formally part of the federal authority, but were then transformed into a Limited Company whose shares all belong to the government [clearly a step towards privatisation at some stage]. It was also broken up into three parts: passenger transport, goods transport and infrastructure. Since then the cargo division has been known as "FFS-Cargo" [SBB-Cargo in German] and, according to general management figures, it has been making a loss every year. These figures do not give any clear idea of where the losses and profits are being made. The FFS-Cargo is a market leader in Switzerland and its headquarters are in Basel, where its managing director Nicolas Perrin is based. It employs 4,400 workers and its operations for the year 2007 are impressive: 56 million tonnes of cargo were handled and with an overall rate of operations equivalent to12.34 billion kilometres per tonne. (Source FFS-Cargo).

In April of last year, management succeeded in cutting 50 jobs, in exchange for which they promised investment of 30 million Swiss Francs. Now they have come up with a new "restructuring plan", which has been taken as a slap in the face by the workers and it includes further job losses.

The Bellinzona plant

Bellinzona began to develop from a small town into an industrial centre when the railway route to Italy was opened. The maintenance workshops of the FFS were built in 1884 and in the beginning employed 140 workers. They grew very quickly into one of the most important repair facilities of the whole of the FFS and by 1909employed 757 workers. From the very beginning these workers became the driving force of the labour movement in the Ticino and were central to the setting up of the first trade unions in the canton.

Today 430 workers are employed in the workshops, but management plans to sack 126 of these. Most of the workers are organised in the SEV (Transport Workers' Union), while others are members of UNIA (a trade union active in the whole of the service industries) and Transfair (a small Christian trade union). The leading Trade Union in this conflict is UNIA because it is the one with the most experience and resources. Furthermore, the UNIA is not bound by a contracted "peacekeeping" deal since it was not party to the negotiations and finalising of the last collective bargaining agreement.

New cuts

The "restructuring plan" of the FFS includes an overall elimination of 300 jobs; 51 of these in the Freiburg call centre, while a further 114 jobs are to be transferred from Freiburg to Basel. In the Bellinzona workshops, which are responsible for the maintenance of locomotives, 126 jobs are to be cut, with a further 18 to be transferred to Chiasso and at least another 10 to Yverdon. The Biel/Bienn workshops are also up for "restructuring", where 46 jobs are to be transferred to Yverdon and Olten.

When this news broke out in early March, the first thing the workers in Bellinzona did was to hold a local demonstration and then they all went to the FFS headquarters in Bern to hold another demonstration. This was backed by UNIA who immediately issued a press release in which they expressed their support for the workers.

The immediate response was strike action!

The March 6 assembly of the workers decided to immediately down tools. They demanded detailed information about the management's proposals, which up until then had only been a rumour. The formal strike began the next day. On the morning of March 7 an assembly was organised in Bellinzona, where FFS-Cargo managing director Nicolas Perrin would have liked to provide extensive information on the "restructuring plan". The workers would not let him speak and made it clear that the only thing they were interested in was a straight YES or NO regarding the rumours about job cuts. In the end, Perrin was forced to give the answer as he stuttered "YES". The workers immediately rose to their feet and threw Perrin out of the assembly hall. The faces of the workers expressed their rage. From the shouting and whistling emerged a clear slogan: "Giù le mani dall'Officina di Bellinzona" ("Hands off the Bellinzona FFS workshops").

The workers decided all-out strike action, [which when this article was written, March 18, was still on]. They prepared for a long and very bitter dispute and made plans for picketing and occupation of the workshops. The rail tracks into the workshops were welded together in order to prevent locomotives and wagons entering or leaving. The pressure was increased with the threat to block the Gotthard Tunnel over the Easter weekend and thereby block all traffic between the Ticino and Italy. The bargaining power of these workers is magnified by the fact that the Bellinzona workshops are the only ones in the whole of Switzerland to produce special brakes for cargo trains. According to the trade union, the FFS would suffer from the loss of supply of these brakes and would therefore would not be able to move more and more of its cargo trains. The TV news on March 14 announced that already ten cargo trains had to be pulled out of circulation.

Chronology of subsequent developments

On March 8 a solidarity demonstration was held in Bellinzona with 8,000 workers taking part.

On March 12 a meeting was held between local Ticino government representatives, some national MPs and a member of the national government Moritz Leuenberger, and the management of the FFS. The outcome of this "round table" was an offer from the FFS to suspend the job cuts for two months if the workers ended the strike. In the evening the strike committee met and decided to propose the rejection of this offer to the following assembly on March 13 and to carry on with the strike.

On March 13 the offer of the FFS was unanimously rejected by the workers' assembly. They decided that so long as the FFS did not explain their plans in detail and elaborate on their strategy for the forthcoming years, they would not enter into negotiations and would continue with their all-out strike.

On March 14 the SEV trade union made it clear that the FFS must withdraw their whole plan to cut jobs, adding that this was a "matter of principle".

Massive wave of solidarity

Solidarity action is a weapon in the hands of the workers. How true this is can be seen by the developments in the Ticino in this period. An incredible wave of solidarity has spread throughout the whole canton. Committees of support have been set up in different twons, which collect money on the streets, in the ice hockey and soccer stadiums and in other factories. Thousands have signed a resolution in support of the strikers. The city of Bellinzona and the canton Ticino are solidly behind the strikers and have publicly expressed their solidarity. Some politicians have even demanded the cutting off of the power supply to the FFS. Three ex-MPs donated 30,000 Swiss Francs two days after the start of the strike. The city of Bellinzona donated 100,000 Swiss Francs. The people of Bellinzona have provided the workers with food. Even the Bishop of Ticino visited the workers end expressed his solidarity. He even blessed them and called on the workers to stand firm! He offered to raise donations for the strikers in every church and to hold the Easter mass in the factory. The whole population is standing firmly behind the workers in struggle. We quote what the leader of the workers, Gianni Frizzo, said: "We have all been fighting for several days now: We are fighting to win the war and not just the battle." (TV-news, March 13)

Special features of the Ticino

Ticino is in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. The people of Ticino are also geographically separated from the rest of Switzerland by the Alps and especially by the Gotthard massif. A common saying is that one must keep away from the "Bern lawyers". An inhabitant of the Ticino considers him or herself first and foremost a "Ticinese" and only secondly a Swiss. This degree of regionalism is even more accentuated than that in the Jura or Oberwallis.

However, the people of the Ticino are not only separated by language and geography from the rest of Switzerland, but also by the level of average income, which is 13.65% lower than in the rest of the country. A worker in Switzerland on average earns 5,674 Swiss Francs but in the Ticino average wages are 4,899 Swiss Francs (Source: Schweizerische Lohnstrukturerhebung 2006). Furthermore the Ticino has also seen the highest number of job losses and closures of state owned factories. FFS, the postal service and Swisscom cut about 2000 of its 6300 workforce in the canton between 1991 and 2004.

The FFS workshops are seen as the industrial heart of Bellinzona. The building of the Gotthard railway 125 years ago led to a boom of this former one-horse town. Nearly everybody in Bellinzona has a member of the family working in the FFS, which makes the conflict more personal for everyone. The latest job cuts in the FFS-Cargo workshops are not immediately seen as an attack of capital against the workers but are perceived as an attack of the rest of Switzerland against the Ticino.

Another reason for this high level of fighting spirit is that the tradition of industrial militancy is more embedded in the Ticino than in the German speaking part Switzerland. All these factors put together have led to the biggest industrial dispute of the past few years, if not of the last few decades.

What about the other workshops?

As we mentioned above, other workshops are facing job cuts as well. While the clerical staff in Basel and the Biel workers seem to be resigning themselves to their fate without a struggle, resistance is developing at the Freiburg call centre.

The reaction of the local Freiburg government to the announcement of job cuts was very hard, while the workers apparently stayed calm. On March 12 the workers' assembly decided on a one hour warning strike. These "extended lunch breaks" were to be continued until Wednesday, March 19, when there is to be a debate in the national assembly about the future of FFS-Cargo. A strike in Freiburg is not planned for the moment, but at the same time the option is being kept open. In fact if the debate doesn't produce any solutions the workers of Freiburg will come out on strike.

On March 14 there was a demonstration in Freiburg where the Ticino workers sent a 70-strong delegation of. To express their solidarity with their colleagues of FFS-Cargo the Ticino engine drivers stopped all regional trains at 7.30 for 5 minutes. Socialist Party president Christian Levrat also took part in the demonstration. He accused the FFS management of dictatorial behaviour and called on the workers to stand firm.


How did we get to such an escalation at FFS-Cargo? What triggered this ruthless restructuring plan ‑ on the surface ‑ was the loss of 190 million Swiss Francs over the past year. The media has been talking about mismanagement by the board of directors. Everyone is trying to lay the blame on somebody else. One day they blame the board of directors and its inability to take its responsibilities, another day they blame Benedikt Weibel, the former managing director, for covering up the crisis that was developing in the FFS.

Obviously mistakes have been made by individual managers over the last few years. But we are not interested in this or that mistake by individual managers. What we want to know is what interests lie behind these decisions. "Market economics" has been the mantra since the 1990s, not only in economic question but also in all political camps. The transformation of former state enterprises into public stock companies (whose shares all belong to the government) was a process that unfolded in the context of the changes that have taken place in the capitalist economy since the 1970s.

Here it is worth taking a look at what happened in the past. The nationalisation of key industries in the past was due to the pressure of the labour movement. There was also an increased participation of workers' parties in bourgeois parliaments and in government. And the widespread nationalisations that took place after the Second World War were a necessary concession of the bourgeois in order to maintain stability.

The participation of the working class in important decision-making processes was and is of a highly contradictory character. On the one hand important demands of the workers had been achieved (e.g. the right to vote for women) and working and living conditions had improved massively. But throughout all this period the capitalists kept the levers of real economic power in their hands. A privileged elite, a bureaucracy was consolidated within the labour movement and took upon itself the role of mediation between workers and bosses in an attempt to alleviate class contradictions. Working conditions in state owned enterprises also tended to be seen as better as compared to the private sector.

All this was always a thorn in the side of the bourgeois and now - in the changed conditions ‑ they have decided to go on the offensive. The lack of perspective of the official left leaders also raises the confidence of the capitalists. And the financial crisis and the approaching economic crisis are also forcing them to go onto the offensive.

The present situation in the FFS is the result of all these developments. The bosses are trying to push the whole debate towards the idea of privatisation and blame bad management for everything. They are calling for a board of management that (according to a comment that appeared in a newspaper), "really understands something about transport and cash flows, instead of management consultants and jurists."

The KMU (association of small and medium-sized companies), that politically is mainly represented by the SVP (the Popular Party), is singing the same tune, but adds that it wants FFS shares to be held by national Swiss transport companies as opposed to the position of high finance which is calling for multinational investment.

The right wing of the SPS (the social democratic party of Switzerland) so far has been limiting its demand to one of fusion between FFS-Cargo and BLS-Cargo with an increase in subsidies. The prudent position of these bureaucrats is due to their own responsibility for the crisis at FFS-Cargo. Christiane Brunner, a candidate of the SPS to the federal parliament in the 1990s, is a member of the highly criticised board of managers. The sitting SPS MP, Moritz Leuenberger, who as Minister of Transport can be justifiably seen as being responsible for the failures at FFS-Cargo, has condemned the strike as a mistake. However, gradually a change of line is emerging in the SPS. The party has expressed its solidarity with the workers through a press release and the president of the SPS, Christian Levrat, visited the workers in Freiburg. Meanwhile the trade unions have rallied behind the workers and are supporting them actively. Their declared aim is to prevent job cuts and defend the interests of the workers.

After Benedikt Weibel left his position, another hardliner is pulling the strings at the FFS, managing director Andreas Meyer. For him the question is not if there should be job cuts and restructuring, but how these are to be carried out. Even though Meyer said he would suspend the plan to reduce jobs in Bellinzona and in Freiburg, the workers decided to continue with the strike. This is a clear sign that the workers do not trust him, and rightly so!

The massive reaction of the workers who went on a wildcat strike without any warning is a clear indication of the real situation. Polarisation in Swiss society has reached such a point that explosions can break out anywhere. The contradictions of capitalism on an international and national level have reached such a level that they are now breaking through the surface. Fifteen years of social cuts, massive increases in productivity without increasing real wages and countless other attacks have led to ferment within the working class.

All the conditions for a worldwide recession have matured. And it is clear that we will be witnessing an enormous increase in conflict between the classes in the next period. In fact, this has already begun in Switzerland. The recent industrial actions on building sites around Switzerland and now in the Ticino are a clear indication of this.

What next?

On March 9 a demonstration was organised in Bern where the industrial workers of Ticino fraternised with the construction workers. On the same day a debate was taking place in parliament about the future of FFS-Cargo. This demonstration further highlights the industrial actions of the building workers and the railway workers.

The workers of Freiburg were to decide whether they should go on strike or not after the debate in the national council. This debate will also affect the workers of Ticino. If the result of the talks are not satisfactory they are threatening to block the Gotthard Tunnel which would have the effect of paralysing all traffic over the Easter weekend. Further actions could take place if FFS-Cargo does not disassociate itself from the planned job cuts.

Extension of the strike

The workers of Freiburg and the engine drivers of Ticino have made a beginning, but the strike must be widened and the pressure increased constantly. Delegations of Ticino workers should go to Biel and Basel to convince the workers there to lay down tools. The resistance must be widened. If necessary the engine drivers should organise further warning strikes in order to paralyse the rail traffic. Furthermore the strikes of the building workers should be coordinated with the strikes of the FFS-Cargo workers. If more industrial action breaks out this should also join in a common struggle. Only united we are strong!


The willingness to fight and the determination of the workers is striking if one takes into account the relatively young history of the Swiss labour movement. The building of strike committees and the democratic basis on which the decisions where taken is an inspiration. The meetings of the workers took decisions on a collective base. The strike is led by an elected strike committee which is made up of workers and trade union representatives. It coordinates the strike and the flow of information. This is already an embryonic body of workers' power. The integration of the families and voluntary helpers is an additional example of the high level the strike has reached. These events can't solely be explained because of the specific history of the Ticino, the closeness to the Italian labour movement and the favourable conditions in the trade unions; it is also an indication of the skills of the workers in very quickly bringing together their experience in the struggle and in taking correct decisions instinctively about which strategies should be adopted and which not.

The question is now posed as to how successful this struggle can be. First of all the economic demands have to be won: the restructuring plan must be withdrawn, there must be no job cuts and no worsening of the working conditions. The workers are not responsible for the mistakes of the capitalists and for the unjust and chaotic general conditions of the market economy.

We have no illusions. If this industrial action is successful the bosses will not relent over the crisis at FFS-Cargo. Another attack will come and it will be more thought-out and prepared than this recent attack. This means we will have to fight again and again and again! We must not let ourselves be divided and played off one against the other. The workers will remember the experience of solidarity in this dispute for the next time. This is a further step forward that will play a considerable role in the future.

As Marxists we have the task at any given moment to go beyond the economic demands and to link the day-to-day demands with the aim of achieving a socialist society. We demand an end to the public stock company and the retaking of the FFS into public ownership, under workers' control. We believe that the elected strike committee is the basis for forming a factory committee, and this should replace the existing company commission. This factory committee should be elected by a regular meeting of the workforce (excluding the management) and it should be possible to recall the delegates at any time.

The factory committee must have access to the business decisions of the company and the accounts at any time. The committee is accountable to the meeting of the workforce and must abide by any decision of the workers. The decisions of the meeting of the workforce are to be binding on management.

Workers' control is of course a blow against private ownership and thus to the capitalist order. The workers would have the same information about the running of the capitalist company as the managers. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained in the Transitional Programme that the first step in taking over control of any industry is the opening of the books. The capitalists normally explain that attacks on the working class are due to economic necessities. Wage restraint, sackings and the introduction of flexible working hours are supposedly inevitable because of mysterious "inherent necessities". Using the excuse that the accounts must be kept secret the capitalists hide the real condition of a company from the workers. Only by opening the account books is it possible for the worker to see what is really going on. Only in this manner are the workers able to see the real economic situation and the functioning of the capitalist system. This is also the first step towards overturning the present relationship of forces.

These demands may appear to some as very distant considering the present balance of forces between labour and capital, but this is the direction in which we must take the debate in the coming period. If such a discussion is developed it has an effect on the understanding of the workers. The world situation today is not an unfavourable one. As internationalists we try to link the experiences of the working class of other countries with the situation in our country. The Venezuelan Revolution provides us with experience of socialist management in those factories where the workers have taken over the running of production, with varying degrees of success. The recent speaking tour of Switzerland by a FRETECO representative from Venezuela in February, organised by the UNIA-Youth, revealed the fact that even in a country like Switzerland there is an interest in such ideas. This underpins our orientation as the International Marxist Tendency and highlights the correctness of our perspectives.

The experience of this recent industrial action will shape the consciousness of the working class in the near future. Our tasks as workers and Marxists are clear: to do everything possible to help this industrial action to succeed! What we can do is to draw out the lessons of the experience of 200 years of class struggle under capitalism and to show our solidarity.

Pressure must be built up in every factory, on the streets, in the schools and universities. The Marxist tendency "Der Funke" appeals for the active solidarity with the workers of Bellinzona and the call centre workers of Freiburg. Their struggle is our struggle.

Our demands

  • No compromise - We will only accept the unconditional withdrawal of the planned job cuts;
  • Workers' control on the basis of an elected factory committee, with the right of recall of the delegates at any time;
  • All important decisions are to be taken by the meeting of the workforce;
  • If the bosses do not budge, we will widen our strike, block the streets and border crossings, and try to extend the strike to other sections;
  • Immediate end to privatisations! All partly or fully privatised companies should be renationalised and put under workers' control!
  • Demonstrate your solidarity - do not leave the workers on their own!

March 18, 2008

This article is also available in Italian.

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