Putting sustainability front and center on the political agenda

Social Watch contribution on behalf of the Swiss Platform Agenda 2030

Two social movements took the streets in Switzerland in 2019, mobilizing crowds of historic size. With an ubiquitous presence in mass media, they changed Swiss public discourse, overshadowing sterile discussions on migration driven by conservatives, which previously were dominating. Putting pressure on politicians, the two social movements even had a sizable impact on the general elections in November.

These two movements are the youth climate movement and the women’s strike. Both seized upon a key topic in sustainable development and made efforts to tackle the issue within a sustainability framework, to adopt holistic perspectives and to explore the connections to other aspects of sustainability.

The climate movement

Following the example of Greta Thunberg, young climate activists organized the first Fridays For Future strikes in Switzerland in December 2018, attended mostly by pupils from high schools. A whole new generation of climate activists, including also students from university, quickly started organizing in local and national structures. In German-speaking Switzerland they became known as the “Klimajugend” (climate youth), a label that local linguists declared 2019’s word of the year. The most visible group has been the Climate strike, who see themselves as the Swiss chapter of the international Fridays for Future movement.

During the year, the Climate strike organized many street protests and other actions. On national action days, climate activists and sympathizers took the streets in towns large and small across the country. They ask national and local governments for a climate emergency declaration and demand for Switzerland to reach netto zero greenhouse gas emission by 2030. Moreover, they reclaim climate justice, stressing that the main culprits of the climate crisis must be held accountable. Finally, they stipulate a system change clause, declaring that if the above goals cannot be met under the current economic and political systems, then those systems need to undergo comprehensive change.

A variety of approaches

Different voices from within the climate youth have shown varying propensity to directly critize status quo politics. Some ferociously attacked right-wing parties for their inaction facing the climate crisis and attributed their subservience to vested interests from industry and finance. The same voices called out those political parties’ attempts at greenwashing. A preferred target for this was the Free Democratic Party (abbreviated FDP in German), in a way the embodiment of business-friendly establishment politics. However, under pressure from their own basis and electorate, suddenly much more interested in the climate crisis and environmental protection, the FDP pivoted to a much greener party platform. Pointing out at their poor record in environmental matters, young climate activists and the youth sections of the left-wing parties adopted the moniker “Fuck De Planet” in their criticism of the FDP.

Leaving electoral politics aside, other activists decided to focus their attention on the institutions that finance the fossil fuel economy, calling out the main Swiss banks for their oversized contribution to investments in particularly polluting industries. Credit Suisse, the second Swiss bank by size, earned most criticism for its investments in sectors deemed too dirty by other major international banks. An ongoing judicial procedure against climate activists who had staged tennis matches in two of the bank’s branches as a protest ensured media attention to these matters. Fined for trespassing, they refused to pay the fine arguing that their actions were necessary and appropriate given the threat posed by the climate crisis. Their acquittal in first instance by a district court was a small symbolic victory for the climate movement. Popular Swiss tennis player Federer found himself dragged into the discussions because he is sponsored by Credit Suisse and acts as a brand ambassador. The climate youth asked him over social media to intercede with the Bank for more climate protection and rescind the sponsorship deal if unsuccessful.

At the same time, other activists adopted a less militant approach, focusing on raising awareness about different topics related to climate change and sustainability and on creating avenues for dialogue, while advocating in direct contact with institutions for an ecological transition.

Unprecedented mobilization for climate action

The climate youth joined forces with other groups advocating for climate action, new and established, to integrate a broader climate movement that managed to place environmental protection as the main topic of 2019 in the Swiss media discourse.

The reinvigorated climate movement called for a single major climate demonstration in Bern on September 29. People streamed from the entire country quickly filling the rather small streets and places of Bern’s city center, so that many attendants could not come close to the government building. This turned out to be the biggest demonstration that the Swiss capital city had ever seen, marking an impressive success in mobilization for the climate movement.

The women’s strike

The other protest that captured the country's attention was the women’s strike on June 14. This was more a day for political action, with demonstrations across the country, than a strike in a narrow sense. A coalition led by women in trade unions, but reaching a broad spectrum of women’s groups, managed to mobilize thousands of women and men on this day, also putting the spotlight on women’s grievances.

A long history of deficiencies

Historically, Switzerland has been very slow in granting women equality in legal rights. For example, women gained the right to vote at the national level only in 1972, much later than most democratic states at the time. In fact, in Switzerland a majority of male citizens had to approve the reform in a popular vote. Moreover, in a particularly conservative region, women gained full political rights at the subnational level only in 1991.

Discrimination against women within the legal system and in everyday’s life was not limited to the ability to vote and be elected. Until 1976 for instance, married women needed their husband’s authorization to take a paying job. Marital rape became a crime only in 1992. A provision on gender equality had been part of the constitution since 1981 but the corresponding law for gender equality came into force only in 1996.

In fact, the first women’s strike in 1991 commemorated the ten years of gender equality in the constitution. Female watchmakers took the initiative to organise this day of political action and protests to call out the government on the very slow progress on matters of gender equality. The pay gap was one of the main grievances expressed.

A lot of work still lies ahead

The second women’s strike in Switzerland was directly inspired by the first one. Unfortunately it had to keep one of its main demands unchanged, as progress in the 28 years in between had been insufficient, namely equal pay for equal work. In Switzerland, women still earn around 7% less than men for equal work. Women are still heavily underrepresented at the highest levels of political, economic and cultural institutions.

Deeply rooted gender stereotypes are still determining organizing principles in Swiss society. As a result, sexual harassment, gender based violence and feminicides stay a preoccupying phenomenon. Moreover, women still take the lions’ share of paid and unpaid care work. As women do most unpaid care work at home, they do less paid work and are at higher risk of poverty in case of divorce or when retiring.

It does not help that maternity leave only lasts 14 weeks and that paternity leave has yet to be introduced. Child and elderly care is seen as a private matter, thus state support is limited and relative costs of external care are higher than in the rest of Europe.

For migrant women, women of color, queer women, and women with disabilities, gender discrimination compounds with other forms of discrimination and is accentuated by them.

Successful mobilization

Given this sad state of affairs it is not surprising that the women’s strike could mobilize women in different sectors of society. However, this achievement cannot be taken for granted, as in previous years Switzerland had fallen to some extent for the notion that with legal gender equality feminism had achieved its goals and become somehow obsolete. Moreover, some conservative women with sympathy for actual demands of the women’s strike were nevertheless put off by the name of “strike” and the perceived militant rhetoric of some of their participants.

The strike and concurrent demonstrations one June 14 in many towns across the country managed to mobilize over half a million women and men, surpassing any expectation. With this strong signal and the discussions before and after this historic day, the women’s strike successfully placed the message that Switzerland still has to tackle women’s issues such as gender pay gap, employee protection in case of pregnancy, maternity leave, violence against women and sexual harassment.

Setting an agenda for sustainability

These two movements achieved, even before their mobilization peaks, the impressive feat of moving the Swiss public political discourse away from previously dominating topics framed from conservative perspectives.

In concomitance with the political dominance of the right-wing populist Swiss people’s party, the main societal debates of the previous years, if not decades, had revolved around issues of national identity, migration and Switzerland’s relationship with the outside world, the European Union in particular. While these topics are indeed important and legitimate grievances abound – such as discrimination of migrants, cruel treatment of asylum-seekers or lack of safe migration paths for refugees – discussions in the mainstream political and mediatic spaces were arguably unproductive, given that most of the time they were framed from the start in conservative, nationalist and often even xenophobic perspectives.

Keeping a progressive framing on top of the issues

But how did the climate movement and the women’s strike manage to break these schemes? For starters, one has to acknowledge that both social movements in Switzerland, but the climate activists much more so, profited from global trends that influenced Swiss political discourse. The global increase in feminist discourse and the rise of the #MeToo movement did not stop at the Swiss borders and had indeed their repercussions here too. The increase of international coverage on climate change issues – fueled in part by Greta Thunberg’s mediatic presence – most likely contributed to the visibility and legitimacy of the efforts of the Swiss climate youth.

The nature of the issues played an important role. On one hand, climate change is a concrete threat that puts at risk many society’s well being in many different ways. One of the already observed effects of global warming most visible in Switzerland is that the glaciers on the Swiss alps are melting away; some of them have already disappeared. Given the symbolic importance of the alps in the Swiss imaginary, which conservatives strongly alimented in the past, the glaciers have been a symbolic vehicle to reach broader segments of the population with a message on climate protection. Similarly, it helps that Swiss peasants also already suffer the consequences of climate change.

On the other hand, the grievances put forward by women directly impact the daily life of half the population while their demands correspond also to the concerns of many men, for example paternity leave and improvements in child care services. Hence, they are very tangible, and once women started to talk more about them, they became visible also for men.

Given this constellation, attempts by the populist right to reframe both issues in nationalistic perspective failed, but not for lack of trying. On climate matters the Swiss people’s party lost credibility for their proximity to climate change deniers, a posture that had never been particularly strong in Switzerland. The risk is of course that the populist right might pivot to acknowledging the imminent climate crisis and start framing it as a national security problem requiring isolation and closed borders.

Similarly, as they had always advocated for patriarchal family arrangements and opposed women’s political and reproductive rights, the populist right lacks moral authority on gender equality. Thus they have not been successful in their quest to frame violence against women as crisis caused by immigrant men, not yet at least.

Luckily, both movements dispose of the antidotes needed to counteract reactionary responses to their advocacy. The climate movement has renewed its emphasis on the global nature of the problem and on climate justice and insisted on designing climate policies considering their social impact from the beginning. The women’s strike included in their broad coalition immigrant women and have displayed enough diversity of perspectives on women’s issues to invalidate simplistic framings.

Ongoing efforts to improve cooperation between these two and other social movements also bode well for the future.

The impact on the general elections

Much of the impact of the massive mobilizations is not clearly visible and quantifiable, because it consists in raising awareness among the general public or in the growth and consolidation of the respective movement. However, given that Switzerland held general elections for the renewal of its parliament in October 2020, the electoral impact had been quite visible.

The elections’ results showed a shift in the composition of the parliament that was unprecedented in Swiss recent history. Of course, one has to see it in the Swiss political context characterised by extreme stability and very slowly moving power shifts.

In the National council, the 200-member lower house of parliament, the left-wing Swiss green party passed from 11 to 28 seats. The more business-friendly Green liberal party passed from 7 to 16 seats. Most of these seat wins by parties traditionally committed to some environmental protection came at the expense of right-wing parties, mostly the Swiss people’s party. The Swiss green party also expanded its representation in the smaller upper house of the parliament.

At the same time, the National council has now more female members than ever. The share of seats in female hands jumped by 10% to reach 42%. Similarly, 12 women were elected to the 46-member lower house, a considerable improvement since last time only 7 women were elected.

However, the right-of-center majorities in both chambers resisted, putting into question the actual policy impact of this electoral shift. Moreover, the joint chambers of the parliament elected in December the seven-member executive body at the top of the Swiss government, the Federal council. Until then, given their small presence in parliament, none of the green parties had any representation in the Federal council. After the general elections however, the Swiss green party demanded a seat, but failed to find a majority in the parliament. It opted instead to confirm the Federal council in its previous composition, in spite of the relatively massive shifts in the parties’ electoral strength. This was once again proof that within the Swiss government system change only happens very slowly.

Both movements continued their actions on the streets in 2020 until the sanitary measures in response to Covid-19 put a stop to it.

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