In the days when I was a registered Independent, I used to say that the Christian right scared me away from the Republicans, and the Democrats’ powerful union allies made me queasy. As I’m now fully aware, my attempt at evenhanded parallelism was unfair to unionized Americans. Still, my attitude was not entirely without merit, and I’ll bet that any Democrat who takes a pragmatic approach to policy issues understands the feeling.

Since Democrats came to power in Congress in 2007, one issue that has refused to die is the Employee Free Choice Act, better known as card check legislation. The bill faces steep odds in the Senate and has never been the top priority for the president or congressional leaders. But, every now and again, the issue pops up, reminding Democrats like me of their awkward relationship with organized labor.

The most controversial portion of the EFCA is the card check proposal. Currently, if 30 percent of employees petition for unionization, the National Labor Relations Board can either accept the petition immediately or hold a secret-ballot election, in which union supporters must receive at least 50 percent of the vote in order to launch a union. Under the EFCA plan, however, a union would legally be formed if just 50 percent of a company’s employees voted in favor of unionization.

Supporters of the bill claim that employers intimidate union supporters. Opponents counter that permitting card check would expose skeptical employees to peer pressure from their pro-union colleagues. Really, though, each side’s argument boils down to the same point: Card check would bolster unionization in America. Receptiveness to the EFCA depends upon how one views this outcome.

Organized labor has certainly given me grounds for hesitation.

Most recently, the country’s two largest unions, The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Service Employees International Union, fought the Senate health care reform bill’s “Cadillac” tax on high-cost insurance policies, an essential means of reducing health care inflation. Their opposition has placed health care reform in jeopardy by persuading their Democratic buddies in the House not to approve the Senate’s bill. On trade policy, the AFL-CIO is notoriously difficult. Their push for protectionism has derailed bilateral trade deals in Congress and weakened the president’s hand ahead of any efforts to salvage the Doha Round of trade negotiations.

And yet, despite their noxious meddling in public policy, unions perform an invaluable service for the American economy. They are the social safety net of last resort.

For at least three decades, conservative economic orthodoxy has stood in the way of universal health coverage and a robust commitment to social welfare. Unions, then, take up the job neglected by the government. For example, when wages stagnate and Congress goes a full decade without raising the minimum wage (as it did between 1997 and 2007), unions step in to negotiate fair compensation for their workers.

It is no wonder that many American workers feel threatened by immigration and trade. But free trade expands the economy and ultimately creates jobs. The true villain is a government that has not provided a social safety net to give workers confidence in a sound future for themselves and their families.

American workers have been doubly hit because even the union-provided safety net has not existed in America for some time. Private sector union membership has declined to about 7 percent from around 20 percent in 1979.

According to a 2009 study by the Economic Policy Institute and American Rights at Work, nearly 90 percent of employers force their workers to attend anti-union meetings during NLRB elections. In 47 percent of cases, employers threaten to cut wages and, most egregiously, one-third of employers actually fire their workers who support unionization.

Clearly, the union side of the EFCA debate has the more accurate claim. But is card check the best solution? It may not be. William Gould – who served as chairman of the NLRB during the Clinton years – argues that card check is largely a distraction. The real answer to the plight of unions should involve holding elections more quickly after workers petition to form a union, speeding up the process for adjudicating worker grievances and allowing union defenders to address worker meetings alongside anti-union speakers.

Regardless, it is clear that something must be done. But, in exchange for my pro-union conversion and Democrats’ steadfast support for collective bargaining rights, may I request one favor of my newfound friends down at the local? When Democrats try to expand the safety net to Americans not fortunate enough to have union backing, stay out of the way. Oh yeah, and keep your paws off trade policy.

Sam Harbourt is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at The Pragmatic Progressive appears every other Friday.

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