Margaret Levi: How labor unions shaped America Labor unions brought us the weekend, social security and health insurance. Political scientist Margaret Levi explains the history of unions and calls for a 21st-century revival of the labor movement.

How labor unions shaped America

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On the show today, Monday Through Friday. So no episode about work would be complete without a look at how workforces get organized. Margaret Levi is a political scientist and a professor at Stanford University who's been studying labor unions for decades - how they formed in the U.S., why they declined and why they're seeing a resurgence. Here she is on the TED stage in 2021.


MARGARET LEVI: It's easy to imagine a world without labor unions. We're essentially living in that world now, and we are worse off as a result. Few of you probably belong to unions, but almost all of you benefit from them. It was unions that brought us the weekend. More importantly, unions built the middle class by ensuring that workers had the incomes to support families, to buy homes and cars and to dream that their children could do better than they could. It was union power and advocacy that helped us win Social Security and health insurance, upon which almost all of us depend.

So, Margaret, if unions are so great, why are they in such serious decline? Because the odds are stacked against them. There are many employers and politicians who are preventing the reform of labor laws passed nearly a century ago, in another era and another economy. These are laws that inhibit agriculture and domestic workers from organizing - largely Black and brown workers. They make it hard for workers in the gig economy to organize. There are employers and politicians who are pushing states to pass right-to-work laws, laws that abolish the requirement that those who are covered by union contracts have to pay union dues. This effectively kills the unions.

But it's not just employers and politicians that are holding unions back. Unions are a cause of some of their own problems. Some unions are extremely bureaucratic, stifling debate and innovation. Some union leaders are corrupt, rigging elections, paying themselves humongous salaries, even when they represent very low-income workers. Now, many critics - possibly some of you - blame unions for inflation. When wages go up, consumer prices go up. True enough - but so does the standard of living for workers. And we, as taxpayers, benefit from higher standards of living by workers. The pandemic gave us the term essential workers. If those in grocery, warehousing, food processing, delivery had strong unions - indeed, any unions at all - there would have been no need for federal programs for those who have jobs to feed their families and prevent evictions.

Workers in gig professions, tech, don't necessarily want a traditional union, but they do want influence over their wages, working conditions and even the policies of their companies. And they are reimagining old approaches and coming up with new ones in order to build worker voice and power. Some are reconfiguring worker cooperatives, employee-owned businesses in which the workers determine wages, working conditions and distribution of profits. In our global, hyperconnected and socially isolating world, platforms such as or Unit recognize and address the fact that there is a mobile workforce that no longer has water coolers or lunchrooms around which to gather and strategize. These platforms provide workers with a way to share experiences, access organizing resources and build networks at scale across geographies and employers. If even some of these explorations succeed, workers will gain dignity, economic security and the power to challenge employers and politicians. The result - the resuscitation of the middle class and a far more equitable society. Thank you.


ZOMORODI: Margaret Levi is a political scientist and a professor at Stanford University. You can see her full talk at


ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our episode, Monday Through Friday. It was produced by James Delahoussaye, Fiona Geiran, Harsha Nahata and Chloee Weiner. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and me. Our production staff at NPR also includes Rachel Faulkner, Katie Monteleone and Matthew Cloutier. Our audio engineers were Ko Takasugi-Czernowin and Gilly Moon. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Michelle Quint, Alejandra Salazar and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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