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Trade Unions, Labor Conflict, and Contested Institutions in the Swiss Construction Industry Christopher Kelley DOI: 10.5876/9781607326311.c003 In the Swiss main construction trades, union organization is high and worker-­ employer interactions are embedded in an elaborate institutional arrangement of what is known as social partnership. The definition of what this social partnership actually means is, however, constantly contested by the actors involved according to their diverging interests and relative bargaining power. Furthermore, while the system offers a number of unique advantages for organized labor and the workers it represents, it simultaneously produces interdependencies that constrain certain courses of action, especially the capability to carry out industrial action. The paradoxical challenge for the union today is that it is precisely this capability that has proven to be decisive not only for gaining new concessions but even for defending those won in the past. The six men waited nervously on a side street in an affluent part of the city of Zurich. Some were pacing, others smoking. The four construction workers and two union organizers came from different parts of multilingual Switzerland, but they had assembled for a single purpose. Then they 88 Christopher Kelley got the word. The demonstration was approaching. All six jumped onto a loaded truck and raced to the nearby entrance of the Swiss Construction Employers Association. They had just twenty minutes to build a three-meter -long, two-meter-high brick wall in front of the building, visibly and physically blocking the quaint pedestrian path leading to the doors of the employer headquarters. Seconds after the team had hauled the first batch of red bricks off of the truck, a large troop of construction workers, who had moments before been holding a union delegates conference in a nearby hotel, announced their arrival with flags, whistles, and chants. This was the team’s cue: they commenced building the wall. With 400 now smiling, chanting, and enthusiastic construction workers all attempting to pass a brick or shovel a load of cement onto the gradually rising wall, crowd control became the team’s primary challenge. In about twenty minutes the wall was complete. Workers whipped out their cell phone cameras and proudly posed in front of the newly erected sheet of bricks, shouting, “Uniti siamo forti”(United we are strong) and “Unia!” The trade union Unia had organized this guerilla action in the fall of 2014 in response to the construction employers’ refusal to enter into annual wage negotiations despite their duty to do so under the industry’s collective bargaining agreement. While contentious maneuvers were nothing new in the Swiss construction industry, instead of employers’ usual complaints that Unia’s actions were too militant, this time employers were accusing Unia of fundamentally breaking the rules of the game. By unilaterally founding a new department to combat the growing number of contract violations, Unia had, in the eyes of the employers, gone astray of the paritarian, i.e., cooperative, path of social partnership. From the employers’ point of view, while firms’ compliance with the contract indeed needed to be monitored, this was a job that had to be done by all social partners involved. In this chapter, I will shed light on the historical, political, economic, and institutional context that produced the episode above. Representing a unique and multilayered case of labor-capital interactions, these are defined by diverging yet occasionally overlapping interests, shifting power relations, varying degrees of conflict, and mutual dependencies. This system, tellingly christened social partnership, is unique in a global sense due to the character and depth of its institutional arrangements. It is, however, unique even in 89 Trade Unions, Labor Conflict, and Contested Institutions Switzerland due to the high degree of union organization, rather significant level of industrial action, and the fact that the collective bargaining agreement is by far one of the most labor-friendly in existence. Much of this chapter is based on ethnographic research carried out in 2011 and 2012 and on research currently underway as part of my dissertation. As such, in addition to historical depictions and political economic analysis, I will include excerpts from participant observation as well as from semistructured interviews. Despite relatively consistent formal institutions of social partnership that have existed since the postwar era, industrial relations in Swiss construction must be seen as a constantly changing product of shifting power relations between the actors involved. As such, the definitions and rules of this social partnership are often contested by the actors involved. While this institutional...


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