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Switzerland: 1 to 12 is just the start of the fightback against pay inequality

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- By Chris Kelley

The Swiss 1:12-Initiative suffered defeat last Sunday. While certainly disappointing, the parties and trade unions behind the initiative are quite clear in their analysis: 1:12 was a first step in a greater journey to establish a more just society based on the needs and prosperity of the people rather than on the privileges of a few.

One to Twelve. This innovative initiative launched by the Swiss Young Socialists and vigorously supported by a number of trade unions, particularly Unia, attempted to put a long overdue stop to excessive managerial wages and ensure that the wealth produced by society is more justly distributed amongst those responsible for the creation of that very wealth. Specifically, the initiative proposed adding a “one-to-twelve” article to Switzerland’s constitution forbidding the highest wage in a company from being more than twelve times higher than the lowest. Currently, the average ratio of larger companies is 1:43, while some corporations such as Credit Suisse and UBS have a ratio of more than 1:190, seeing CEOs being handed out millions, while ordinary employees’ wages have stagnated in the past years.

From the start, it was clear that a massive and well-financed campaign would be launched against the initiative. And, carried by neoliberal lobbies and right-wing parties, this did indeed occur: from numerous billboards on every street corner to individual letters from CEOs to their employees, painting a bleak picture of everything other than complete Armageddon in the case of a yes-vote. Regretfully, the millions invested into defeating the initiative did indeed have an impact. In the end, 35% voted for the initiative and 65% against.

Considering these results however, neither the proponents nor the opponents seemed to react the way they “should” have. While perhaps ironic or even a paradox, the supposed winners were far from triumphantly reading any obituary for progressive causes. And the supposed losers subtly smiled.

If one takes a step back, this awkward situation may make more sense. In a way, both sides probably agree upon one thing. One to twelve was much more than simply a yes or no vote on an individual question. And it was in just this sense that, a month prior to the vote, the conservative member of parliament and neoliberal lobbyist Ruedi Noser viciously announced that 1:12 must not only be defeated, but be shot down with at least 70% voting against: anything less would represent a “declaration of war” against “the economy”. It is up to lobbyists like Mr. Noser to decide whether or not they regard such initiatives demanding more social justice as a declaration of war. What is however quite clear, is that 1:12 was most definitely a very vehement declaration for one thing: fundamental societal change. 1:12 stood and continues to stand for a society based upon solidarity and prosperity for all in place of an economic system not only producing massive inequality, but reoccurring economic crises whose grave consequences are then shifted to the masses.

This declaration of change saw an intensive grassroots campaign arise, leading to 30’000 1:12 flags hanging from peoples’ balconies and windows, around a million flyers distributed in the streets and more than 500 public debates. However, and in the long term much more significant, it hurled the question of social justice into the absolute forefront of public debate and activated thousands to actively join a wider movement composed of various parties and unions for social justice.

In an article in the run-up to the vote, I quoted a remark from the trade union Unia describing the political atmosphere in Switzerland as a “Swiss Spring”. Now, in the aftermath of the vote, it seems only fair to quote a more “mainstream” newspaper, the Tagesanzeiger. Its résumé is, however, while certainly from a very different perspective, not far from the above: “[the defeat of 1:12] is no more than a partial victory for opponents of fair wages”. Whether explicitly verbalized or implicitly feared, this is a second point upon which probably most of the parties involved agree upon. Far from being the end, 1:12 much more seems to be the beginning of something – something with perhaps quite significant dimensions.

And the next debate has already started. In 2011, trade unions collected enough signatures for a vote on a minimum wage of 4’000 Francs. So far, there exists, besides those guaranteed by the collective contracts negotiated by trade unions, no legal minimum wage in Switzerland. Once again, this campaign, which has only just begun, has managed to activate and integrate into the union movement thousands of people who have not only had enough of what Mr. Noser refers to as “the economy”, but who also see a future of a much more just society.

In a letter from the national 1:12 campaign group addressed to sympathizers and activists on the day of the vote, short-term defeat was admitted, yet the letter was just as clear in its perception of the bigger picture:

“Our path started with 1:12 and now continues. Will you join us?”

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