Switzerland: ‘Real equality is far from being realised’

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Half a million took part in the women's strike on 14 June. Pic: solidariteS

The women’s strike on 14 June 2019 will long remain in the history of the women’s and workers’ movement in Switzerland. More than half a million people joined the demonstrations throughout the country. Some 70,000 marched in Zurich, 40,000 in Bern and Basel, 50,000 in Lausanne and more than 20,000 in Geneva. The demonstrations were no less impressive in smaller cities like Sion, Neuchatel and Fribourg, where 12,000 took to the streets. All answered the call issued by the “Women’s Strike Collective”.

What brought together this multitude of people, women and men of all generations, immigrants and Swiss, was the demand of equality: equal pay and pensions, access to social services (kindergartens, elderly care, and so on). But these were not the only demands. Slogans against sexism and sexual violence, homophobia, transphobia, gender oppression and in solidarity with migrant women dominated the demonstrations. Many Muslim women participated wearing their hijabs.

More than a year ago, rank and file militants, inspired by the women’s movements in Spain, Poland and South America and the #MeToo movement, held a first women’s assembly in Lausanne, where the decision was taken to organise a strike on 14 June 2019. The date was chosen for its symbolism for the women’s movement in Switzerland.

On 14 June 1991, ten years after equality legislation had been passed, women all over the country went on strike and demonstrated to demand that this equality be put into practice. More than 500,000 thousand women took part. Thanks to this strike, major gains, such as maternity leave and the right to an abortion, were won during the 1990s.

However, women’s place in Swiss society remains precarious. The gender pay gap is 20 percent, while the pension gap rises to 40 percent due to women’s fragmented professional life. One in seven women gets sacked after maternity leave. Real equality, like elsewhere, is far from being realised.

In contrast to 1991, 2019 was a movement from below. After the first assembly, attended mainly by women from the French speaking part of the country, collectives were slowly but steadily built in different cities and the movement crossed the linguistic barriers to the German and Italian speaking parts. In March a national assembly of 500 women was held in Bienne.

After that, local and workplace collectives were built one after another. Confronted with this growing movement bosses who till then showed no interest, started threatening staff and telling them that striking would be illegal.

The call was for a strike in all aspects of women’s life, at work and at home. Striking at work in a country where bosses have imposed “labour peace” as a condition of any collective bargaining with the unions — which are extremely bureaucratised institutions — is very hard. Despite the threats and difficulties, tens of thousands went on strike.

In Geneva and Lausanne, where the workers’ movement is traditionally stronger, many schools remained closed and public services barely functioned. Where striking was not possible, a lot of women organised short walkouts, took an extended break or wore a purple ribbon, even though they risked getting fired.

In the watch industry, where bosses are known to be relentless, the mobilisation was unprecedented. Though measuring actual striking hours is hard, hundreds of thousands of women and men participated in one way or another. The movement’s greatest victory lies in the fact that it has legitimised the word “strike” and striking itself in a country where it is considered a French habit.

During recent years, the Swiss ruling class has tried to advance a series of attacks against workers and particularly women workers’ rights. Most of them were stopped.

The movement from below built around 14 June has drawn together thousands of older and new activists, who have organised collectively and are determined to continue the struggle. This movement has the power to stop the bosses’ attacks and revive the whole workers’ movement.

Marisa Psaltakou is a member of the Women’s Collective of Valais and solidaritéS www.solidarites.ch