Confirming that the brotherhood of the "fairness doctrine" in which everyone is equal to everyone else (but some are too big to fail or prosecute, and are thus a little more equal) will have to do more work to bring wayward Switzerland, home to some of the world's biggest companies, fattest bank accounts and wealthiest individuals, into the socialist fold was the announcement moments ago that Switzerland roundly rejected a proposal to limit executive salaries to 12 times that of the lowest paid employee, with 66% of the voters opposing. This so-called "1:12 initiative for fair pay," was brought about by the youth wing of the Social Democrats (JUSO) which claimed that nobody should earn more in a month than others earn in a year. The outcome is notable because it was in March when Swiss voters backed proposals to impose some of the world's strictest controls on executive pay, with some 70% of voters thought to have supported plans to give shareholders a veto on compensation and ban big payouts for new and departing managers. Surprisingly, just over six months later, the drive to bring more equality to all appears to have lost it steam.
"Of course we are disappointed. But I also believe that we have an achievement nonetheless," JUSO President David Roth told Reuters. "A year ago, opponents were defending high salaries. Today no-one is doing that. No-one in Swiss politics would dare say that million salaries are justified."
Maybe not, but they refused to enact it into law, which means that million and much higher salaries will continue. From Reuters:
Sunday's vote is just one of several initiatives being put to Swiss voters to try to address the widening income gap in the country. Switzerland will also hold a vote on whether to introduce a basic living wage of $2,800 per month from the state, though a date has not yet been set.
While anger at multi-million payouts for executives is not limited to Switzerland, the Swiss system of direct democracy - which allows for up to four national referenda per year - means popular outrage can more easily be translated into action.
Deborah Warburton, a partner at executive search consultants Hedley May said the issue has resonated in other parts of Europe.
"Even though it was a 'no' vote, the question of how to make executive pay fairer is still very much a live issue," she said, adding Britain has implemented a law to give shareholders a binding vote on executive pay while France and Germany are weighing similar measures.
Meanwhile, corporations and others who benefit from unlimited pay, are understandably delighted:
Opponents to the proposal had warned it would harm Switzerland by restricting the ability of firms to hire skilled staff, forcing firms to decamp abroad, resulting in a shortfall in social security contributions and higher taxes.
"It's an important decision for the Swiss business location," Valentin Vogt, president of the Swiss Association of Employers told Swiss television SRF. "The Swiss people have clearly decided that it's not up to the state to have a say on pay."
The Swiss have a history of voting against proposals they feel could hurt the country's economic success story or threaten competitiveness.
The last is particularly surprising in a world in which workers are eager to make their lives as easy as possible because contrary to the rest of the world, in Switzerland initiatives to increase workers' annual paid holiday allowance to six weeks from four and to cut the working week to 36 hours from 42 both have failed at the ballot box in the past. Impossible US labor unions would say. But such is life when one is actually concerned about the long-run instead of just maximizing one's consumption potential in the here and now.
Still it is likely that anger at social inequity will continue even in this most "neutral" of countries:
Some Swiss firms have acknowledged the public anger. Last month, Credit Suisse said it made a "mistake" by paying Chief Executive Brady Dougan 19.2 million francs ($21 million) in cash and stock in 2009, plus 70 million francs($76.75 million) worth of stock under a bonus plan for 2004. That meant his total pay was 1,182 times that of the bank's lowest paid employee, according to Travail.Suisse.
Finally, while Switzerland may have no problem with capping executive pay at 12 times the minimum wage, we wonder how the Swiss, or Americans for that matter, would feel about a ratio of nearly 20 times that, or 213 to 1 which is how much more, at last check, the average Fortune 50 CEO made more than their average worker.