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Swiss Women Leave Jobs to Protest Discrimination

June 14, 1991

GENEVA (AP) _ Hundreds of thousands of Swiss women left their jobs Friday to protest against continuing discrimination 20 years after women won the right to vote and a decade after sexual equality became law.

The day of protest was called to renew demands for equal pay and employment for women, better child care and fairer social security laws. About 500,000 women took part, the Swiss Trade Union Federation said.

The protest was without precedent in a land where strikes are taboo and where there is little record of radical feminism.

″Women have been patient too long,″ said a leaflet published by the trade union movement. ″Our daughters’ future will be decided today.″

Even so, the organizers’ slogan - ″When women stop, everything stops″ - turned out to be an overstatement. Economic life went on normally because most women chose to engage in token work stoppages for short periods rather than full-day strikes.

According to official statistics, women here earned on average one-third less than men in 1989 and less than 4 percent of top business jobs are held by women.

Many women also complain that Swiss social security laws do not recognize housewives’ work and women are forced to pay higher medical insurance premiums than men. They say a shortage of child care centers makes it harder for mothers to hold down careers.

This is despite a constitutional amendment approved by a national referendum in 1981 establishing equal rights for men and women, ″in particular in the domains of family, education and employment.″

During one demonstration on Friday several eggs were hurled at a gathering of foreign dignitaries, including U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who were attending a ceremony at Parliament in Bern to mark Switzerland’s 700th anniversary. No one was hurt and there were no arrests.

In the picturesque town of Fribourg, women temporarily blocked the entrances of two department stores. Bells chimed in the watchmaking center of La Chaux-de-Fonds to mark a 45-minute work stoppage there.

In the financial capital of Zurich, streetcars were briefly delayed by a five-minute ″solidarity strike″ by female workers. Women held picnics featuring a so-called ″equality soup″ in Geneva, and some activists filed through department stores handing out pink roses to women sales clerks.

Many women said they planned to meet with friends for ″strike coffee″ and did not plan to cook dinner for their families Friday.

Male sympathizers operated ″strike kitchens″ during their lunch breaks. Many men wore the designated strike colors, pink and violet.

The day of action drew a mixed reaction from employers used to untroubled labor relations.

Joanne Burgisser, a strike organizer in Geneva, said some department stores threatened women with dismissal if they took time out to strike. Many firms said women wishing to strike should take unpaid leave or vacation.

Female employees at one major bank arrived at their desks to find chocolates and letters expressing gratitude from their male colleagues.

Newspapers filled their pages with tributes to women. The Lausanne-based Le Matin daily even changed the color of its masthead to pink.

Women themselves were divided on the need for action.

Brig. Eugenie Pollack, head of the women’s army, said she did not like the word strike but backed the day of action because society needed to be made aware of sexual discrimination.

Silvie Leuenberger, a sports journalist on the tabloid Blick, criticized the action as ineffective. ″Instead of playing hooky for a day, these women should do something concrete the rest of the year,″ she said.

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