This essay was one of five finalists in The Nation‘s Third Annual Student Writing Contest.

I arrived at Yale University in the fall of 2005 knowing little about unions. They simply were not a part of my political vocabulary. But that all changed very fast as I became involved in a unique community campaign at Yale-New Haven Hospital, the university’s teaching hospital. That campaign brought together union and community activists through an organization called Community Organized for Responsible Development (CORD), which fought to make a new hospital development project responsible to the neighborhood in which it was to be built, the Hill, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Haven. In the spring of my freshman year, the hospital finally sat down with the community and negotiated a historic Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), only the third of its kind in the country, agreeing to a number of benefits including a fair process for union recognition for the hospital’s service workers, many of whom were looking to unionize with Local 1199/SEIU.

That process wasn’t what is known as a card-check neutrality or majority sign-up process, in which employers stay neutral and workers are allowed to join the union by signing membership cards. Instead, the union and community agreed to a strong conduct agreement that would require a National Labor Relations Board election. It seemed New Haven had reached a major turning point, with the hospital workers’ nearly decade-long fight to form a union about to be realized.

Unfortunately, in the fall of my sophomore year, I witnessed the collapse of the organizing drive. Once the union called for an election (after having signed up a majority on cards), the hospital began systematically to violate every one of the commitments it had made, unleashing an extensive campaign of intimidation throughout the hospital, which destroyed the possibility of a free and fair election.

For many months there was outrage, and an independent arbitrator agreed to by both sides ultimately made the hospital pay a multimillion-dollar penalty to its workers. But she failed to force the hospital to recognize the union, claiming she did not have the power to do so, leaving workers without a basic say in their job yet again.

The fight at Yale-New Haven continues, but the lesson was that while unions can and should seek neutrality agreements, workers’ efforts to form unions will almost always be thwarted in the absence of a strong federal government willing to enforce labor law. We desperately need the next president and Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and restore workers’ rights, enacting harsh penalties for employer intimidation and mandating employers to recognize majority sign-up processes, not only NLRB elections.

The more I have learned about labor history and our moment, the more I understand that the basic imperative of government today is to protect employers’ rights to be free of unions and not to uphold employees’ rights to them. This is a full reversal of the idea behind the 1935 Wagner Act, which gave Americans the right to organize. When the Wagner Act became law, it was understood that it was a basic social good for workers to be organized into unions, and that if you wanted a union, the government would be right behind you protecting your rights.

My experience with Yale-New Haven Hospital shows that the next president must take that belief seriously again and implement it in government policy and practice. We need the president to insist that it is the policy of the federal government to encourage workers to form unions.

The other thing I learned during the Yale-New Haven campaign is that labor issues can open up a wide field of questions about the nature of our democracy. After eight years with a president who has bandied about “democracy” around the world in pursuit of his war on terror, as if the term’s meaning was reducible to the right to vote, we need to grapple with some of the most fundamental questions about democracy in our own country. What does it mean to have the right to vote in a polity if you don’t have a say in the basic conditions of your work–or of your community?

When President-elect Obama is setting the agenda for the years ahead, he should keep this question in mind and fight hard to bring it to the fore of public discussion by combining unambiguous rhetoric with concrete pro-worker policy changes.