An article of faith for almost all the Democrats at the Denver convention is that the country's much-diminished trade-union movement needs to be revived. Membership has fallen to less than 10 percent of the private-sector workforce. This decline is a main reason, it is argued, for stagnating middle-class wages. Public policy, say the Democrats, can help.
The rallying-point is the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a measure co-sponsored by Barack Obama and already passed by the house of representatives. Mr Obama promises to sign it into law as president, if the senate moves it forward and it reaches his desk. Politically and on its merits, however, this is an ill-advised piece of legislation.
EFCA's most sought-after provision is a "card-check" rule that would oblige employers to recognise a union and bargain with it if half the workforce signed cards saying that they were in favour. Labour law varies from state to state but the current procedure usually requires a secret ballot, which protects workers from intimidation. John McCain has opposed the change and advocates a Secret Ballot Protection Act instead.
The unions have a point when they complain of intimidation by employers. EFCA would stiffen penalties for firms that bully union sympathisers, which is both desirable and good politics. But the card-check initiative is what the party is emphasising, and otherwise pro-union voters are bound to have mixed feelings about it.
A secret ballot protects workers who want union recognition as well as those who do not. That is why opposing it arouses suspicion. Membership has fallen at least partly because workers themselves doubt that unions best serve their interests, and with reason. Opposition to secret ballots does not reassure them. It is a self-serving demand, and plays badly with the centrists the Democrats need to bring in. It is bad politics, therefore, as well as bad law.
A broader question is whether weak unions are part of what ails the middle-income workforce. Their decline probably explains some of the wage slowdown--although the most striking aspect of the country's growing inequality is the astonishing growth in the very highest incomes, an unrelated issue. The right kind of unionism can raise wages and advance workers' interests while improving a company's competitiveness. The wrong kind, as the UK knows only too well, can cripple industries and indeed whole economies.
The secret of success, arguably, is a culture of accommodation and non-confrontation. Unions can make it easier for firms to work in closer partnership with their employees, to their mutual advantage. But if the relationship is framed as nothing but a contest over rents--a zero-sum game, with no holds barred--the drawbacks seem likely to predominate. What may concern centrist voters is that Democrats are apt to press the unions' case in precisely this spirit of confrontation. Anti-business sentiment is a dominant note at the convention. EFCA's most enthusiastic advocates would like nothing better than to grind the faces of the bosses. You do not have to be a boss to be wary of that.
[This article appeared in the FT yesterday. The last paragraph was cut for space except for its first sentence, which on its own is either mystifying or absurd, according to taste--as emails to me have pointed out. So, with apologies if you have seen the edited piece already, I thought I would post what I filed.]