Monday , May 10 2021

Switzerland, strike ground

By Michael van Orsouw, November 17, 2018

History Reloaded

The state strike is a decisive event for modern Switzerland: Soldiers guard the Bundeshaus during strikes. Photo: Keystone

Swiss laborers are diligent, kind and productive. That's the picture that Switzerland likes to spread. But exactly a hundred years ago, Switzerland experienced a general strike with widespread work. Hundreds of thousands in Swiss cities went on strike in November 1918. Large refusal to work was even called "state strike" because of its spread. The strike is a monstrosity in Switzerland, if not marked by Fleiss!

This is still going on today – commemorative events, exhibitions, lectures, TV movies, theater, and countless debates will take place this fall. Even Federal Council Member Alain Berset commented on this, and Christoph Blocher also gave his opposite opinion.

What is forgotten: General strikes are not a single phenomenon – but Switzerland is a country that is very friendly to attacks. In the year of the 1918 general strike alone there were 264 strikes in Switzerland with 24,109 strikes. In 1919 there were 233 strikes and in 1920 still 174. In the left-wing newspaper, someone spoke proudly of "thunderstorms". On the contrary, even Italy today as a strike country looks very simple.

Mason, stone breaker, carpenter

Improving working conditions by refusing to work was also a way that had been tried and tested in this country in 1918. Money was less valuable, and bread and milk cost more, twice as much as before the war. This caused the country to be unhappy and to encourage workers on the streets. Incidentally, the ones who want to strike the most are masons, followed by stone breakers and carpenters. But also in the textile, metal, machinery and Swiss watches industries, it came again and again to stop work.

A lot of examples, which cause sensations, are labor disputes in Lucerne. It concerns a company with the long name "Steam Ship Company for Lake Lucerne" and lasted from July 1919 to December 1920. "The atmosphere in the staff, and indeed overall, is bitter," wrote "Lucerne News", "that with staff resentment, the riverside districts have huge debts to do, holding back the support of the steamship company. "Labor disputes not only affect Lucerne, but also five cantons around Lake Lucerne.

Pride of central Switzerland: Uri steamboat (built in 1901) is the oldest Raddamper used in Switzerland. Photo: Coronado 1992 (Wikipedia)

Staff want from the previous equality salary to federal traffic staff. But the "unification conference" with management and staff did not carry any concessions. Therefore, coal loaders, feeders, machinists, cashiers, inspectors, sailors, helmsmen and captains decided 163 against 5 votes for strikes. What no one ever imagined: "Gallia", "Schiller", "Lucerne" and how valiant steamers were called, only lay there.

The steamer grounding is an unparalleled shame for the central Swiss tourist area, which tried after the First World War only aufzurappeln again. Even arrogant steamers, dolls in the heart of Switzerland are full of mystery, avoiding a crisis. After two days, management gave up and fulfilled all staff demands.

High waves due to layoffs

But soon the next storm emerged: the workforce demanded inflation benefits. Instead of negotiating about it, the steamboat company argued with the rampant economic crisis and reduced all wages by 300 francs directly, besides they fired 13 employees, some had 24 years of service. These steps throw high waves, not only among staff, but in the communities around Lake Lucerne.

At the protest meeting in the "Lion Park" hall participated "more than 1,200 people", "from all circles of citizenship politics", as noted by a reporter, "the crowd head to head and the whole group is looking for a place in vain" The mass releases strong steam. The master steamer cannot let the storm pass but must react. They recruited five dismissed workers, four received redundancy payments of 150 francs per year of service.

This reveals the difference between large-scale national strikes and local labor disputes: leaders of state strikes must answer in court and be punished; The Lucerne strike leaders were partially successful and the hero was celebrated.


  • Rossfeld, Roman / Koller, Christian / Studer, Brigitte (ed.); Country strike, Switzerland in November 2018; Baden 2018.
  • Orsouw, Michael van / Vogel, Luke; Gold sparkle and shadow; Central Switzerland in the 1920s; Lucerne 2005.

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