Industrialisation and the social issue

Industrialisation and the social problems relating to it posed new challenges to the Federal State that was founded in 1848. It reacted step by step to socio-political issues by introducing labour protection measures. Simultaneously, the Confederation always endeavoured to improve the basic conditions affecting the commercial and industrial sector in Switzerland.

Initial labour protection measures: factory laws

From the second half of the 19th century onwards, the Confederation and the cantons introduced worker protection measures that were regulated in factory laws. The laws dealt with the hours of work and safety at work, both of which were controlled by a factory or labour inspectorate. Despite these measures, however, disputes between employers and employees continued to increase up to the end of the First World War. Important documents on the 19th century and the social issue can be found in the fonds of the worker protection and education system (1857-1931).

From class struggle to social partnership

The general strike of 1918 is often depicted as the climax of the social struggle in Switzerland. The documents relating to the deployment of troops as a security force and the police provide an insight into those days of November 1918 and the period that followed. The private archive of union leader and co-organiser of the general strike Robert Grimm (1893-2000) can also be found in the Swiss Federal Archives.

The peace agreement forged in the Swiss metalworking and machine industry in 1937 heralded a further turning point in the relations between employers and trade unions. Both sides committed to social partnership and banked increasingly on collective employment agreements. As a consequence, the unions were accepted by the Federal State as a partner for the development and approval of acts of law. The state adopted the role of arbitrator in cases of conflict.

State control of economic development

Switzerland's commercial-industrial sector was and is heavily dependent on the global economic situation due to its export orientation. The state is able to intervene in economic developments via the currency policy of the Swiss National Bank and through economic support measures. The state also actively promotes economic development, for instance by concluding international agreements to create favourable basic conditions for the Swiss export industry.

Employment is another area in which the Federal State intervenes. It regulates, for instance, unemployment insurance (obligatory since 1976), health  at work, the approval of foreign workers and regulations relating to night shifts, work on Sundays and short-time work.

Federal competencies in economic affairs and trade policy

The documents contained in the Swiss Federal Archives originate mainly from offices within the National Economy Department that has often changed its name over the course of time and is currently known as the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER). Of particular importance are the fonds of the Department of Trade (1872-1995), which later became the Federal Office of External Economic Affairs (1883-2001), and the documents of the Department for Trade and Industry that subsequently became the Federal Office for Industry, Trade and Labour (FOITL) (1870-1998). During the 1990s, its tasks were adopted by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) (1993-2001). Documents of particular significance can often be found in the personal files maintained by directors of the National Economy Department.

Tips for further research

Publications of the Federal Archives

Degen Bernhard, Sonderfall Schweiz im Bereich der Arbeitswelt? 50 Jahre Friedensabkommen als nationales Jubiläum, in: Studien und Quellen 24 (1998), p. 171-192.

Morandi, Pietro, Die Entstehung eines wirtschafts- und sozialpolitischen Leitbildes in der Schweiz der 1930er Jahre und die ordnungspolitische Debatte der Wirtschaftsartikel in der Bundesverfassung, in: Werkstatt Bundesverfassung: Kommentare und Inventar der Quellen zur Geschichte der schweizerischen Bundesverfassung 1848-1998 (PDF, 22 MB, 04.08.2014), compiled by Silvia Arlettaz, Bern 1998. p. 197-248.

Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv, Landesgeneralstreik, 11. bis 14. November 1918.

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Last modification 04.11.2019

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