Discover the history of the CERN Staff Association in a few questions

Bandeau SA history

1. When and why was the CERN Staff Association founded and what have been its main battles?

As CERN is an international organization, the CERN Staff Association (SA) must be more than a trade union, because the relationship of dependence that exists between CERN and its personnel goes far beyond the usual employer-employee relationship. Indeed, the CERN staff are not subject to a national employment law or social protection system[1], and it is up to CERN to define its own employment law and social protection. The role of CERN is therefore twofold: that of an employer and that of a State. This creates a very special bond between CERN and its staff. And this bond exists not only during working life, but extends beyond it, because only CERN is the guarantor of its social protection (e.g. pensions and health insurance). And this social protection extends to employees’ family members. This telescoping of state-citizen and employer-employee relations makes the SA’s functions and actions different in many respects from those of a trade union, if for no other reason than because its negotiations with the employer cover a wider area and, like the representatives of citizens in a state, it must contribute directly to the development of employment law and the social protection system. Generally, then, the Staff Association’s primary purpose is not to engage in “battles”: it is the Organization’s social partner.

But the Staff Association has yet another vocation. This was illustrated by the recent publication of a brochure entitled “What future for CERN?”. It is worth noting that what it defends in this brochure is not the future of the members of the personnel, although this is obviously very much tied in with the future of the Organization... It defends the aims, principles and values that underpin the creation and continuation of the existence of CERN and its success as a first-rate European body at the global level. In this brochure, the Association stresses the need to continue to have sufficient resources, including qualified personnel and equipment, to continue to promote, through its activities, the spirit of cooperation and peace that have made it such a great European success. To sum up: defending the interests of the members of the personnel and their families, contributing directly to the development of the employment law and social protection specific to CERN, and promoting the values and the place of CERN within world research and culture, these are the three axes of the mission of the CERN Staff Association. Much more than just ‘battles’, then!

It was from the very beginning of the existence of CERN, then housed in premises at the University of Geneva, that the usefulness, the necessity, of a Staff Association with a multifaceted mission as described above was understood by the first members of the personnel: they met and adopted Statutes on 11 May 1955. Only a few weeks later, the Director-General of CERN at the time, C. J. Bakker, recognized the Association as the Management’s interlocutor and as the only body representing all the members of the personnel. The first joint committee allowing regular dialogue between the two parties was set up at the same time. A number of joint bodies were set up in the following period, including those governing the specific social protection of CERN. A few years later, in 1961, the Association having proved its worth, it found its place in the Staff Rules and Regulations.

The Association has many ther dimensions. Two deserve special mention here: firstly, the Kindergarten and School located on the very site of CERN, in Meyrin. Open not only to the children of members of the personnel but also to those of the local population, it has been operating for over 50 years under the aegis of the Association. A number of the Association’s elected representatives are appointed as managers of this external structure, taking on the role of employer for the 25 or so people who run this long-renowned facility. The Association also assumes ultimate financial responsibility and secures a subsidy from the CERN Management. Secondly, around a hundred sports and cultural clubs also operate under the Association’s umbrella. They are a very effective way for members of the personnel and their families to integrate in the region, as they are a privileged gathering place, including with the local population, to whom they are open. The Association subsidises them and obtains an equivalent grant from the Management of CERN. Providing a framework for these groups to operate and helping them to achieve their goals takes time and effort, which the Association strives to provide year after year.  

That being said, the main issues to which the Association contributed were: consolidation of the social protection for employed members of the personnel (balancing of the pension fund, guarantee of pensions and health insurance in the event of the dissolution of CERN, care for dependents, etc.); a better balance between working time and personal time (possibility of buying and accumulating leave, possibility of reducing working time when approaching retirement, etc.); that the employment conditions offered by the Organization allow it to attract from all its Member States the most highly qualified personnel needed for its activities, and then to retain and motivate them (for the last ten years or so it has been mainly a question of opposing the repeated attacks aimed at reducing staff costs); that the Organization be able to overcome crises without losing its ability to be and remain a center of fundamental research and a world-class center of expertise (recruitment program financed by time saved, which for years enabled CERN to have staff numbers that its budget alone did not allow, integration of some members of the personnel from subcontractors); that adjusting salaries in line with inflation no longer causes a social crisis every year (annual adjustment effectively taking account of Member States’ practice in this area)... In almost all cases, these remain the issues of today; only a few issues have found a satisfactory solution that has remained so over the years.

In order to make an effective contribution, the Staff Association has be the Management’s and the Member States’ interlocutor with whom all decisions affecting the members of the personnel are discussed. To become this interlocutor (replacing consultation with concertation, creating a tripartite body for discussion before decisions are taken, etc.) has therefore been an important task, and it will remain so in the future. The same applies to the Association’s credibility, representativity and capacity for initiative: these are also never-ending topics. On a number of occasions, we have had to take a stand and call on the members of the personnel to strike, which is very rare in intergovernmental organizations, but this has been done on a couple of occasions and the personnel have always rallied to the cause.

Several of these actions have made it possible for the Staff Rules and Regulations and other texts governing the conditions of employment, retirement and health insurance of the employed members of the personnel to evolve positively. The current mechanisms for dialogue between the Association, the Management and the Member States are also the result of a long process of changes aspired to by the Association: concertation rather than consultation, which is the norm in intergovernmental organizations, is a real plus (at CERN there is an obligation to make every possible effort to converge). And so is the existence of a tripartite body with the representatives of the Member States (this is an opportunity to understand each other better, to assess each other’s expectations and constraints, in other words to provide each other with the means to converge rather than confront each other). But putting these mechanisms to good use is also a question of individuals...

In some cases, the Association has had to deal with attempts to devide it. This was the case in 1979, on the occasion of the periodic review of the conditions of employment and the salary scale for employed members of the personnel. The Member States decided, with the agreement of the Management of the Laboratory, to freeze the salaries of the top three grades. The aim was to not grant any compensation for inflation to the members of the personnel concerned during a number of years so as to reduce the corresponding salaries by 3, 6 and 9 % of the highest salaries. A large number of the members of the personnel concerned felt inadequately defended by the Staff Association, and decided to create a committee composed of elected representatives, the “Senior Personnel Committee”. They wished to make their views known directly to the Management on issues concerning the terms and conditions of employment, without having to go through the Staff Association channel. These events occurred at a time when the annual election of a new executive team for the Staff Association was taking place. As soon as it was elected, determined to avoid a split in the personnel and to support the single staff representation system, which the majority of the personnel as well as the Management of the Laboratory firmly believed in. In order to give the Staff Association unquestionable legitimacy, its leaders proposed and got approved the creation of three electoral colleges, allowing each member of the personnel to elect a representative from his or her own professional category to the Staff Council: academics, technicians and operatives workers. Each College thereby had a proportional number of representatives within the Council. This system of representation has not changed since, and the Association remains the only statutory representative body of all members of the personnel.

In other cases, the battles were too unbalanced and the members of the personnel of CERN saw their employment or working conditions degraded (slowing down of careers, reduction in numbers of staff, greater proportion of fixed-term contracts, retirement age raised to 67 already in 2012...). To take up the fight on these subjects again is difficult, to put oneself in a position where one can make up for lost ground is very tough.

As elsewhere, issues relating to gender, gender relations and diversity (e.g. origin, sexual orientation, nationality, status within the institution) are matters in which the staff representatives have taken and continue to take an interest. The dynamic created by the presence on the grounds of a population of very diverse origins is sometimes slowed down by the presence of too many different viewpoints. The Association has supported and continues to support developments towards greater respect, understanding and tolerance. For example, it has strongly supported the full recognition of same-sex marriages and partnerships, overcoming the opposition of some Member States (CERN was one of the first intergovernmental organisations to recognise such unions).

Interview by with four former presidents or vice-presidents of the Association: Marcel Aymon, Michel Benot, Joël Lahaye, Jean-Pol Matheys and Michel Vitasse.


[1] This follows, among other things, from the Headquarters Agreement between the Swiss Confederation and CERN, which was agreed at the time of its creation: CERN is only exempt from Swiss social security if it offers equivalent social protection to its staff.

The following part of this article will be published in the next issue.