The heat is on: Switzerland is entering a period of turmoil and class struggle

The crisis of capitalism is even shaking countries like Switzerland. The heartland of international finance, wealth, “neutrality” and social peace has been rocked by a series of strike actions on the part of building workers. With a growing radicalisation of the Swiss working class and increasing intransigence on the part of the bosses, the stage has been set for serious class battles.

The crisis of capitalism is even shaking countries like Switzerland. Despite its huge stake in international finance and industrial capital, Swiss foreign profits are not sufficient any more to buy "social peace", or at least, more and more capitalists are no longer willing to spend money to keep "social peace". On the political front, the upswing of the extreme rightwing party, the SVP, in the last years poses new challenges to the political parties of the working class - a task they have failed to carry out satisfactorily up until now.

In this situation, a group of young workers decided to set up the Swiss Marxist current. This article deals with the context in which the comrades are carrying out this important task of refounding Marxism in the heart of Europe.

On September 22 more than 20,000 building workers came out onto the streets of Zurich, the financial and economic centre of this multilingual alpine country. This was the biggest working class demonstration since the general strike of 1918. The reason for this gathering was that the bosses of the building companies are unwilling to renew the collective contract with the relatively new trade union UNIA, which was formed fairly recently as a product of a merger of several unions in the last period.

The demonstration in itself is worth describing. Contingent after contingent of workers marched behind their banners through the streets of Zurich. In different languages, the same message was sent to the bosses: renew our collective contract or we will fight in a serious manner.

What is particularly interesting to note is that the radicalism of the slogans is somehow connected to language. Whereas many German speaking banners still called on the bosses to stick to social peace, French and Italian banners on the other hand expressed the willingness to take the next step and simply proclaimed in large letters: "GREVE!" or "SCIOPERO!" (STRIKE!). However, it must be said that this is just a tendency and not a general rule as "STREIK" (STRIKE) and BAUSTOPP! ("BUILDING SITE AT A STANDSTILL") were also seen.

At the final rally at the Helvetia Platz, the results of the strike ballot that was held beforehand were proclaimed: 85 percent of the workers of the unionised building sites voted in favour of action.

The most inspiring thing, however, was the various speeches. First there were speeches in German, then in French, followed by Italian, and then in Portuguese, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish and Albanian. Workers of all nationalities, not just the traditional ones, proclaimed themselves in favour of the defence of their common rights.

This union means strength in different ways. First of all the UNIA is one of the few examples of European trade-unionism where migrant workers are fully integrated into the organisation, or at least where there is the willingness to do so. Secondly, by this is also implied a certain "natural" weakness of trade union bureaucracy - it simply cannot reproduce itself easily at any time and place.

It is clear that the main base of the union leadership is German speaking, but this does not represent the country and its working class as a whole. And the German speeches from the union tops mainly called on the bosses to maintain social peace and renew the contract. Perhaps this is even a "compromise", still signalling the ability to fight, but the bosses don't listen to these words - they will hear a different kind of music. The "building workers' parliament", a body that represents the different work collectives of the 150 big building sites, decided on October 7 to begin strikes in three different cities on October 15. Geneva, Neuchâtel and Bern will be first cities where the unionised workers will shut down the building sites for one day, followed by Zurich on November 1.

On November 5, the next bargaining round will begin between the bosses and the trade union representatives, who have been legitimised by the workers' representative conference to conduct the negotiations. If this round of negotiations collapses, strike action will intensify in November and December, followed by a break in action in January and February because of the decreased volume of building work due to alpine winter conditions (and many migrant workers are laid off in these months and spend them with their families back in Portugal, Spain, Italy etc.). Strike action is supposed to resume in March with the beginning of the new building season. We Marxists fully support this strike plan as it will take a long struggle to defeat the bosses. As long as the mood of the workers is not undermined by unprincipled behaviour on the part of the union leadership, in the long run the building workers can and will win, as we will explain.

The Swiss Marxists, in the second edition of their paper, which is distributed in German and Italian (thanks to the fraternal help of the comrades of Falce Martello) stress several key points to winning the struggle. On the one hand they (two of them building workers themselves) outlined several conditions for the conduct of the strike and the preparation of the union.

First of all is the demand that there must be no secretive bargaining, that workers, not just union representatives take part and that the result of the negotiations must be put to a vote at all unionised building sites before being valid. This main demand, among others, is not just mentioned in their paper, but they also use their political influence in the Unia-youth front in the Wintherthur-Zurich district to distribute it as widely as possible within the union itself.

At the same time, using the work of the American Trotskyist, Henry de Boer "How to win a strike" (which they have translated into German for the first time) they put forward methods for spreading and popularising the movement amongst wider sections of the working class and the population.

In order to put these suggestions into practice they are calling for the formation of a solidarity committee for the strike movement of the building workers in their hometown of Winterthur.

On the other side of the Rhine, the Austrian Marxists of Der Funke are also doing everything they can for the movement succeed. They called for participation in the demonstration in Zurich on September 22, and they alone went with 25 youth and workers to Zurich to express their solidarity with their fellow workers and colleagues. They also organised a concert to popularise the struggle and raise funds in solidarity with the strike and distributed thousands of leaflets informing young workers at the apprentice schools about the class struggle in the nearby country. As the strike moves forward and spreads, they will expand their activities of spreading information, mainly to fight the scabs that may be recruited from the nearby region of Vorarlberg, Austria. It is not a very well-known fact that more than 30,000 workers from this region commute to work in Switzerland. 

There are several reasons why the perspectives for the strike look good - as long as the trade union leadership holds firm and does not look for the next, quickest way out of the situation by means of a terrible deal with the bosses, which, given the experience of trade unionism in general, is always a possibility.

One is football. In June 2008 the European championships will take place in Austria and Switzerland. Not just in terms of the class struggle, but also in terms of football, the Swiss team is much better prepared to go into the contest. However, in both countries several stadiums for the championships have yet to be finished. This gives the Swiss building workers a huge weapon in their hand.

There are also other building sites that are very sensitive to any delay. The workers of the Neat-building site in the village of Sedrun, for example, have raised their voices. They demand better safety and working conditions in their tunnel, and payment for the time it takes to reach the building site, which is by cable car with low capacity. As they are without a collective contract, they have stated that any time they take strike action to get better conditions on their particular site. Neat is a multi-billion euro project. It is supposed to be the largest tunnel in the world, crossing below the Alps and filling a transit gap between Germany and Italy. Any further delay in this project would cause serious financial problems for companies involved.

But not all workers are in such a favourable situation. Already on October 2, the second day without a collective contract, a commission composed of the regional authority of Zurich, the building bosses and the union decided, against the vote of the union representatives, to lower the wages of unskilled building workers under the age of 30 by 10 percent.

This shows the real meaning of the bosses' actions. Officially, the conflict was about making working hours more "flexible", but the real reason is different. The bosses' boss, Messmer, openly said that his aim is to get rid of trade unions altogether. Messmer is a liberal FDP parliamentarian and, as was stated on hundreds of T-shirts at the demo, a "Capitalist and Christian". In his eight years in Parliament he has lanced eight motions of law, including any linked to the direct interest of the building sector, and he is also a promoter for a fundamentalist Christian church.

Just few years ago, the newly formed UNIA went on the offensive, and through demonstrations and strikes at the Neat-tunnel they forced the bosses to lower the retirement age from 65 to 60 years. Ever since then they have had a holy hatred for the union. First they tried to attack workers in the side trades, such as the carpenters and painters. But even there they could not win decisively. The painters, for example, mobilised and started to repaint the houses of the bosses in fancy colours. With actions like that they won. But now the struggle has reached the heart of the industry, and the outcome of this struggle will be decisive for the working class as a whole. If the building workers succeed, the union will be able to move forward through drives, but if the workers lose, this will also imply serious problems for the union as a whole. Unia is mainly based in the building sector, and just started a campaign to organise more strongly in the other industries with a well-thought-out plan of regional actions, in order to establish unionised strongholds in every area of the country. 


National elections will take place on October 21, and it is expected that the right-wing bourgeois party, the SVP of Christoph Blocher, will once again take a majority of votes (in 2003 the SVP got 26.7% of the votes, the Social Democratic Party came in second).

The political system in Switzerland is quite different from the rest of Europe, and one feature of the "consensus democracy" in the country is the so-called "magic formula". Since 1943 the Swiss government has been composed of the same four parties in the same proportion, three bourgeois parties and the Social Democrats. It was not until the last election in 2003 that things changed when Blocher demanded, and received, a bigger share for his party in the government, which was a political earthquake. At the same time the Party redoubled its efforts to present itself as "the Swiss party". In the current election campaign, Blocher is leading a hardcore xenophobic campaign, demanding the deportation of "criminal foreigners and their families". The campaign image for the SVP is that of a herd of white sheep, based on the Swiss flag, kicking out the black sheep. This insult was taken up by many left-wing and working-class organisations, declaring themselves as black sheep themselves (and designing images where the black sheep are kicking out the white sheep).

But Blocher's SVP is testing the limits. He called for a public festival and march in Bern on October 6, just two weeks after the working class took to the streets in the nearby town of Zurich. Within the party the festival was named the "March on Bern", a clear analogy to Mussolini's march on Rome. Publicly, Blocher stated that he could not guarantee that his stewards would stay calm if "rabble" were to be present in town that day.

This provocation was clearly understood and within days a united front of more than 40 left-wing and working class organisations organised a counter-action called the "Party/Hard ("fest" in German has this double meaning) against racism". The role of the Social Democratic Party leadership was nothing short of pernicious during these days. At first they gave support to the initiative, but soon they downgraded this support to an "ideal" support, whatever that means for a party that forms the local government together with the Greens.

In fact "ideal support" means a sell-out of the anti-SVP mobilisation. Whereas the demonstration of Blocher and his reactionaries was allowed, permission for a counter-demonstration was not granted. Not only was permission not granted, it was just "tolerated" by police, probably to control the situation better. The reason for this turn-around on the part of the Party-leadership was due to "anonymous calls over the internet by the black bloc" that was widely publicised in the bourgeois papers in order to whip up hysteria and fear on the day of the demonstration.

On the actual day of the two actions it was clear that the balance of forces was clearly in favour of the left-wing. Instead of the 10,000 people defending "Swiss rights and values" only a few thousand (between 2,500 and 5.000) turned out. Among this folkloric march, there were contingents of well organised groups of fascists.

On the other hand, a similar number, if not more, turned up for the anti-racist mobilisations. This is difficult to say as the counter-action was hindered in many ways. An express train which carried hundreds of demonstrators was more than one hour late because of "technical problems" just before reaching the train station at Bern. In the city itself, the place where the left-wing rally was going to take place was surrounded by heavily equipped and armed police units, hindering by any means possible people who had formed demonstrations to march out of the square. This of course meant heavy street fights. Eventually thousands of people simply tried to move out of the square individually and spontaneous blockades and small demonstrations were formed. One of these blockades at a bridge was so strong that police could not break it up, despite using teargas, rubber bullets and police tanks. Thus, the SVP demonstration was prevented from entering the main town, and had to improvise its rally on the other side of the river. As all police forces were concentrated on cleaning up the streets and the blockades in order to make way for the reactionaries and fascists, small groups of activists easily entered the place where the SVP rally was scheduled to take place. Individuals at that place took the advantage and smashed the piled up equipment and information stands of the SVP. These activists were mainly from the so-called "Autonome" (Autonomists), a direct action movement that is quite strong in Switzerland, especially in Bern itself. They were joined by so-called "locos", second and third generation migrants who were at the forefront of direct actions, reflecting their anger at the fact that this rich country offers them nothing in terms of a decent living.

For the liberals and the reformists this single act - the destruction of the "Bundesplatz" was enough to criminalise the whole left, and the SVP attempted to portray itself as the defenders of "democracy". What they meant is something rather different. It was not the actions of these few dozen activists that shocked them, but rather the fact that mobilised people - not to mention the impending strike action of the building workers - stopped the main bourgeois party in the streets.

Meanwhile, "The Battle of Bern" has provoked several discussions within the political scene. Whereas party representatives of the SDP have said they would not enter a government with the SVP, thus threatening the abolishment of the "magic formula" that has guaranteed political stability in the country since the 1940s, other representatives came out attacking the left-wing, distancing themselves from the whole action in Bern.

By the way, this was not the first time that clashes and rioting has been used by the bourgeois to try to divide the left activists and the working class movement. For years there has been the tradition that on the May Day demonstration in Zurich, the left radicals march with the traditional organisations of the working class (and the main organisers of the traditional May Day demos in nearly all the towns have switched from the SP to the Unia-Union). But every year there is a huge clash, as the police are always trying to stop the left wingers from leading the march forward after the joint march. This is merely a symbolic clash, as the police never have allowed the left-wingers to do so. So the result is always a heavy street fight, which in turn the right-wing and liberals always try to associate with the unions. 

As interesting as what is happening in the SP is and its weakening influence in the organised working class, what is happening to the "Partei der Arbeit" is equally interesting. Under the pressure of the Swiss bourgeois, the Communist Party relabelled itself in the 1940s and choose that name, which also perfectly fit the "People's front" policies imposed by the Stalinists. The party branch in Ticino has now decided at their last congress, to rename itself the "Partito Comunista" (The Communist Party), which does not simply mean a new name, but new politics as well, according to the general secretary. Even though it has just three Members of Parliament, this fact is a clear indication of the class struggle heating up in Switzerland.


Stop press!

The strikes began at nightfall on October 12 at the Neat building sites. The strike went on for 24 hours, and was a complete success. 600 workers in total took part in the action. They have demanded a new collective contract and improved safety conditions, pointing to the twelve colleagues that have been killed at this site since the start of the building process.  Today, on Monday, October 15, strike actions commenced in Geneva with 5,000 workers taking to the streets, in Bern with more than 500 workers on the streets and in Neuchâtel with 400 workers on strike. In total that makes more than 400 building sites on strike. This is more than was expected by the Union itself.

Messages of support and solidarity can be sent to:

See also:

Marxist Tendency launches its journal “Der Funke” in Switzerland (May 15, 2007)

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