THE SWISS 1:12 CAMPAIGN
The gap between the salaries of the highest and the lowest paid workers of the companies around the world is getting bigger and bigger. How fair is that? This topic came, for the first time, at the centre of the public debate in Switzerland through a referendum and a determined youth movement. We spoke with the 23 year old Florian Vock of the Swiss Young Socialists of JUSO, the key group behind a campaign that might have wider socioeconomic repercussions in the crisis ridden and austerity hit Europe.
Greek Newspaper ‘Eleftherotypia’ ( http://www.enet.gr), Sunday magazine ‘E’, 01.12.2013
Interview by: Spyros Chatzigiannis
Photos: JUSO Schweiz and Jonas Zürcher/JUSO Schweiz
The relation of Switzerland with Plato became more intimate than ever on Sunday 24th of November this year. The Swiss went to their ballot boxes that day to choose between a yes, or, a no vote regarding an anti-inequality idea of the ultra fertile mind of the aristocratic Greek/Athenian philosopher: That there should not be a big gap between the income of the upper and the lower parts of a society. The platonic ideal was arguing that a person from the highest parts of society should get paid maximum five times the salary of a person from the lowest part of the same society, or, city if you prefer. The Swiss, then, were called upon last November to decide on something similar, through a related referendum, while throwing some ‘water in their unique Swiss wine’, giving the luxury/opportunity to the CEOs and high-flying members of big Swiss companies like Nestle, not to limit their salary to five times the salary of the lowest paid worker in their company, but, to survive, or, thrive to twelve times that salary. The 1:12 Swiss inequality movement became a Swiss reality and not just a Platonic ideal. We spoke with the international secretary of the youth political group JUSO, a political sibling of the Swiss Social Democrats party, the 23 year old Florian Vock, for the 1:12 campaign that caught the interest of the world’s media. And while the referendum preferred to pronounce an anti-Platonic ‘No’, Vok has pointed out in our dialogue with him, before and after the referendum, that the young Swiss feel that the global economic crisis is attacking vital parts of their lives. A fact that they are not willing to put up with it for much longer. In tune, one might say, with the thoughts and worries of many other young people across the austerity hit Europe. The Platonic ideal, then, is more relevant than ever.
1) Why do you do this 1:12 campaign? It seemed strange to many people because your country is famous for its thriving banking sector.
From the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008 we began, as a nation, to realize that the middle class and the workers were having difficulties to earn enough money. Especially in the last ten years their income has not been enough. And this has been a shock for the Swiss mentality and culture because here we take it for granted that our life will get better and better. Our expenses for our health insurance, for our rents, food and our every day expenses make redundant any increases in our salaries. Quite greedy managers are earning millions and millions and on the opposite side other people are earning not even enough money for living. We realized that there is a huge part of our population which is really poor. And we decided that we should have a public debate for this wave of social inequality. Before our 1:12 campaign, no one was discussing this issue in public. This has changed now.
2) Plato has famously argued that the salary of the members of the highest parts of a society should not exceed more than five times the salary of the members of the lowest part of this ideal society. Why did you choose the 1:12 and not the Platonic 1:5, or, let’s say, the 1:20 ratio?
Nowadays in Switzerland the difference of the salary of the lowest paid worker with the highest paid worker in a company is approximately 1:56. In 1984 that was 1:6. In 30 years, that was a massive change. And we thought that now an employee in a company is earning less in a year than the highest executive of the same company in a month. That is why we thought that the 1:12 analogy is fair and symbolic. One of the chief economists of the UN, Heiner Flassbeck, supported our initiative also for economic reasons. He argued, in his paper, that an economy becomes problematic when there are so big salaries.
3) Practically speaking how will this 1:12 balance in the salaries of the various workers of a company become a reality? Does that mean that the salaries of the highest paid workers will be reduced, or, that the salaries of the lowest paid will be increased?
Actually this is a decision that the companies have to make. They have to decide how to arrange it. In the public sector in Switzerland there are no managers who earn more than twelve times the salary of their staff. Perhaps the managers of the Swiss railways and the Swiss post office are on the 1:13 scale, but, that’s not really different from our idea. Our Bundesversammlung/Parliament works like that. The seven leaders in it receive a salary of approximately 500.000 Swiss francs each which falls into the 1:12 category.
4) The critics of your idea argue that such a policy would drive big companies out of Switzerland. What is your answer to their argument?
Well, it’s a scare tactic. We know it’s already being funded from the companies and from the rich and the wealthy. Actually they used the same tactic about 100 years ago when it was about the debate of children working in Switzerland!
5) Your country besides its banking sector produces and exports many other goods and it has many small and medium sized companies. Do these companies operate on the same wavelength with big Swiss multinational companies like Nestle, regarding the 1:12 initiative?
It’s very interesting what is happening right now in Switzerland regarding this issue. For many years the small/medium Swiss companies were co-operating with the big Swiss companies working together in politics, in the same lobbying groups. Now the small/medium companies realize that they don’t have the same interests with the multinational giants. And that’s why they support us. They realize that an economy is becoming problematic when some managers earn so much. And when CEOs who have failed get so much money, like the president of Credit Suisse, Brady Dougan, who earned in 2010 100 million dollars while we, as a state, had to save the private bank from collapsing with billions of public money.
6) All those business people whose interests are threatened from your campaign have spent large amounts of money in posters, TV/newspaper ads etc. which support the ‘no’ vote. How did you manage to do your own campaign, without having the same budget and resources of the ‘no’ to 1:12 camp?
We only had 300.000 Swiss francs in our budget but our power is in the Swiss streets and in our mainly young and enthusiastic supporters. We didn’t have money but we had fresh ideas. In the last day of the campaign we sent 100.000 messages on Facebook and in the mobile phones of the voters. We made 30.000 flags, that were displayed in balconies and windows around Switzerland. And the most important thing: We visited 500 schools where we presented our ideas. We have the young in our side. More than 50% of the under – 40 were supporting us in recent polls.
7) In 1984 when the difference in the salaries of the low ranking with the high ranking members of a company was 1:6, almost Platonic then, was there a legislation that enforced this limit?
No. It was just another culture. There was another way of thinking in the country. Nowadays we have adopted the Anglo – Saxon financial model. Thus, it’s a matter of a cultural change. The Swiss managers and CEOs want to get paid really big amounts of money because this is what they saw and learned in America and England.
8) What did you learn from this referendum that resulted in a 35% yes and a 65% no vote?
We realized that the Swiss cities supported our idea and the countryside was much more in favour of the no vote. We won in the area ‘circle 4 – 5 ( kreis)’ of Zurich the capital of our banking industry. And we were surprised with the very positive results that we had in Basel, where the big pharmaceutical multinational giants of Novartis and Roche, opponents of the 1:12 initiative, have their headquarters. We also had good results in the Italian speaking city of Ticino.
9) Mr Daniel Kubler a Swiss academic from the University of Zurich has said at the New York Times that he doubted that there would be further or more referendums on executive pay. How do you comment on this?
In Switzerland there is an unspoken rule/law that if a referendum idea receives the no vote then you have to wait another five years before proposing a similar referendum. Our referendum initiative was the start of a series of referendums and issues that will deal with very important issues for Switzerland in the next twelve months. In February the nationalist Swiss party, the Swiss People’s Party, is having a referendum that wants to impose a cap on the number of immigrants in the country and afterwards the Swiss trade unions will have a referendum about a minimum wage of 4.000 Swiss francs. We will continue our fight for the social inequalities in our country by focusing our attention to the speculation in the global food trade from the Swiss multinational company Glencore, one of the biggest companies in the world.
10) Did your campaign spread in other European countries that are under the spell of the current economic crisis and should the Greek people think about organizing similar initiatives in their own crisis ridden country?
Yes, in Spain there is a public debate about something similar, as well as in France and in Germany. Surely, this idea has to be adopted from the citizens of your country.
11) Did your idea, then, leave precious seeds of social justice in the Swiss political soil?
Yes. Today ( 25.11.2013) the president of the Social Democrats, Christian Levrat, asked from our Parliament to create a law which will force each company in Switzerland to explain, for instance, why its CEO is receiving a salary which is 200 times higher than that of the lowest paid worker in the same company. And this would be a very important step forward for our idea.
12) In other words, your campaign would have made Plato happy?
I think yes. I studied Sociology and Philosophy and I believe that in the end the majority of people are in favour of such a form of equality. But the current economic crisis and the campaign of fear from the lobby groups of the big companies in Switzerland have made people being scared that they might lose their job if they become politically active against such an inequality. I hope that this will change.