Many people realize that unions can hurt the workers they claim to represent. For example, the United Auto Workers union drove labor costs up for the Big Three automakers, a major factor in driving General Motors into bankruptcy and leaving Detroit a shadow of its former glory.
But what many don't realize is that labor unions can kill jobs and hurt workers even if they are not members of a union, because the laws, regulations and politicians supported by unions affect our entire economy, often in negative ways.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute illustrates the myriad ways unions depress economic opportunity in a new video called "The Life of Julius" (which can be viewed at WorkplaceChoice.org). The two-minute animated video follows the working life of a young African-American man, detailing how labor unions thwart his prosperity at every turn.
For example, as a 17-year-old in search of his first job, Julius finds that the labor pool in his hometown is artificially small thanks to minimum wage laws, which have been promoted by labor unions for decades.
Proponents of minimum wage laws hope they will raise the standard of living of our lowest-paid workers. But the reality is, as Julius discovers to his sorrow, that minimum wage laws drive up labor costs and therefore shrink the number of available jobs, hurting low-skilled, low-experienced workers the most.
But don't take my word for it -- according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the very first minimum wage law in 1938 led to the destruction of up to 50,000 jobs, jobs that were desperately needed at the height of the Great Depression.
And as with the first, so with the last: Writing for the New York Times Economix Blog, economist Casey Mulligan concluded: "National trends suggest that the sharp fall in part-time work during the last five months of 2009 can be largely attributed to last summer's federal minimum-wage increase."
Not that politicians have learned any of these lessons. Despite mounds of data showing that minimum wage laws kill jobs, President Obama and his allies in Congress are nonetheless eager to raise the minimum wage once again.
In fact, Obama used the first State of the Union address of his second term to call for "rais[ing] the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour." Unfortunately, just like in the 1930s, a new minimum wage regime would deal a heavy blow to an already weakened economy.)
Eventually, though, Julius does find a job. And in early middle age finds himself a nonunion manager of a unionized manufacturing plant. Like many parents his age, Julius is faced with the imminent prospect of sending at least one child to college.
But for a whole host of reasons, labor unions have conspired to leave Julius with less take-home pay than would otherwise be the case. And later in life, just as Julius is looking to retire, he finds that unions have left him with an empty nest egg.
It's a surprising and disheartening journey for poor Julius. Many people are familiar with the individual pieces of this puzzle. But the entire story has not been told nearly enough, and that story is this: Labor unions contribute to higher taxes, increase costs on businesses, and add layers of bureaucracy and red tape to our entire economy, restricting the free flow of labor and goods and killing jobs in the process.
It's not just Julius' life. It's all our lives.
Matt Patterson is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Center for Economic Freedom.