The Swiss Spring: 1:12 is more than just a ratio



- By Chris Kelley

13 Million, 26 Million… 91 Million. Do these numbers, whatever they are, sound impressive? Probably to most people. In fact, they are frighteningly impressive. These numbers are nothing less than the wages the CEOs of Novartis, of UBS and of the Credit Suisse Bank are dished out respectively.

Currently, these numbers and what they represent are the talk of the town in Switzerland, where a vote this coming Sunday will determine if a “one-to-twelve” article is to be added to the nation’s constitution, ensuring that the highest wage in a company is no more than twelve times higher than the lowest wage.

In common international perception, the country of Switzerland is a place probably more known for its chocolate, cheese and, yes, “successful” banking than for innovative campaigns for social justice. Yet, in what the newspaper of Unia, the country’s largest trade union, has titled “the Swiss Spring”, general questions of social justice and especially of what determines a just wage are increasingly dominating public debate. The discussion is spurred on by a number of popular initiatives which will soon be voted upon. In Switzerland, a popular vote can be called on more-or-less any topic if at least 100,000 citizens’ signatures are collected and verified. The introduction of a minimum wage of 4,000 Francs and a general increase in pensions are but a few of these upcoming initiatives and which have seen left-wing parties and the trade union movement take the offensive.

One of the most prominent elements of this debate is the so-called “1-to-12” initiative, launched by the social-democratic youth party Young Socialists and strongly supported by trade unions, calling for a maximum one-to-twelve-wage-ratio in any one company. This initiative was born into a context of increasingly absurd executive wages: the average ratio of the highest to lowest wage in a company grew from 1:6 in 1984 to 1:14 in 1998 and jumped to a staggering 1:43 in 2011. Credit Suisse, for example, can currently boast a wage ratio of 1:191, meaning CEO Brady Dougan is paid 191 times more than the lowest paid employee. The 1:12-initiative was launched to curb this unjust as well as economically senseless development.

Furthermore, such colossal wages cannot, of course, be seen in isolation from what an average employee of the same company makes. The more money is paid to a company’s so-called top-shots, the less there is for all the other employees. It is no coincidence that while many executives’ wages have sky-rocketed in the past decade, most employees wages have tended to stagnate. It is in this sense that 1:12 not only aims to put a stop to unjustly high wages, but to generally insure that a company’s profits also reach those responsible for actually making those profits, namely the general workforce.

Hardly surprisingly, conservative and right-wing parties as well as neoliberal lobbies have launched a massive and costly campaign against 1:12 with the goal of intimidating voters into turning down the proposal. Besides repetitively emphasizing the ideological argument of “free markets”, it is more or less a fear campaign designed to convince voters that a yes-vote would constitute the utter downfall of the Swiss economy and the introduction of a “planned economy”. If we keep in mind the fact that the average wage-ratio in 1984 was not 1:12 but even 1:6, the absurdity of such scare-tactics becomes apparent.

Whatever the outcome, the results of 1:12 are already apparent. Together with the minimum wage initiative launched by the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions, questions of just wages and social justice in general are, as noted above, increasingly on everyone’s lips. Furthermore, the absurdity of the current situation, as well as the necessity for change, is practically universally accepted. It is in this sense that the 1:12 campaign is much more than simply about a wage-ratio, it is part of a much greater debate currently gripping Switzerland.

- Chris Kelley works for the Swiss union Unia.

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