November stood out in many European countries for its commemorations to mark the end of the First World War. In neutral Switzerland, however, remembers it is the General Strike of November 1918 that is recalled. Historians still muse over the real reasons for the three day stoppage and its consequences. But the real legacy has remained largely unnoticed: there are almost no strikes in Switzerland anymore. On average, just three working days a year are lost per 1,000 employees on strikes. Put another way, that corresponds to one hour of strikes for every 300,000 hours worked.

Switzerland is not unique. In Germany, Denmark and the US strikes have also become rarities. While industrial action remains prominent in France, Belgium and Spain, strikes have generally lost their economic significance: losses due to stoppages have fallen to tiny fractions of percentage points of national GDPs in European countries.

Harmony suits everyone

That’s good news, because no one benefits from strikes: employers are damaged, because they can no longer produce, workers are harmed by the loss of earnings, while a stable business environment benefits investors and others too.

But why have strikes almost disappeared? One reason is the general weakening of union power. Within the OECD, unionisation has fallen by a third over the past 30 years, due mainly to structural economic changes: service industries are more heterogeneous in terms of their workforces than industry, and therefore a tougher recruiting ground for unions.

People gathering on the Paradeplatz in Zurich during the general strike of 1918. (Building History Archive Zurich)

Technological development also plays a role. Today it is no longer enough to occupy a physical space; an online presence is also required. During France’s recent rail strikes, carpooling apps and real-time timetables helped commuters identify the trains still running or find alternative means of transport.

The most important reason for the decline is probably a changed institutional environment. In Switzerland, as elsewhere, employers and unions have learned over the past century, turning to rules and frameworks to nip industrial action in the bud through negotiations. Such measures include structured wage negotiations, self-regulation clauses and collective labor agreements (CLAs).

Powerful unions

Paradoxically, union influence has increased, despite falling membership. In many European countries, the number of workers covered by CLAs now exceeds total union membership. That is even more evident in Switzerland, where half of all jobs are covered by CLAs although less than 20 per cent of employees are unionised. Since 1999 under changes accompanying Switzerland’s bilateral agreements with the European Union, the so called ‘accompanying measures’ on the free movement of labour made it easier still to declare general applicability to a pay deal: some 25 per cent of today’s Swiss CLAs come under such definitions.

The growth of union influence has gone so far as to warrant greater scrutiny of their legitimacy. From a public interest angle, unions warrant state support as long as they effectively represent worker interests in companies. But they do not deserve support if they prevent structural change or impede productivity growth. In Switzerland trade union attitudes towards new forms of labour raise legitimate doubts – with or without strikes.