CEOs to Workers: More for Me, Less for You
by Holly Sklar
Published on Monday, July 25, 2011 by CommonDreams.org
Big company CEOs got a 23 percent raise last year and
corporate profits are at record highs. But the minimum
wage has less buying power now than in 1956 – the year
Elvis Presley first topped the charts, videotape was
breakthrough technology and the Dow closed above 500
for the very first time.
It’s no accident wages are down while corporate profits
are up. As JPMorgan’s July 11 “Eye on the Market”
newsletter put it, “Reductions in wages and benefits
explain the majority of the net improvement in [profit]
margins… US labor compensation is now at a 50-year low
relative to both company sales and US GDP.”
The minimum wage sets the floor under wages, and that
floor is sinking. The 1956 minimum wage was $8.30,
adjusted for inflation.
Today’s minimum wage is $7.25 – just $15,080 annually.
CEOs make more in a few hours than minimum wage workers
who care for children, the ill and the elderly make in
a year. Median CEO pay was $10.8 million last year
among 200 big companies measured by Equilar.
The $15,080 minimum wage workers have for rent,
groceries, transportation, medicine and everything else
for the year doesn’t even buy 2 pounds of the imported
caviar featured in the Forbes Cost of Living Extremely
The last increase in the minimum wage to $7.25 on July
24, 2009 was so little so late it left workers 30
percent below the minimum wage peak of $10.38 in 1968 –
$21,590 annually – in 2011 dollars.
Today’s retail clerks, health aides, child care
workers, restaurant workers, security guards and other
minimum wage workers have $6,500 less in annual buying
power than their 1968 counterparts.
That doesn’t help our corner stores, our communities or
our national economy. It hurts.
We didn’t have to go backwards. U.S. income grew
$11,684 on average between 1969 and 2008, the year Wall
Street drove our economy off a cliff. But there was
nothing average about the actual income distribution.
Every dime of income growth went to the top 10 percent.
Income for the bottom 90 percent declined.
Compare that to the period between 1917 (when the data
began) and 1968. Income growth averaged $26,574. The
top 10 percent got 31 percent of that growth. The
bottom 90 percent got 69 percent.
You can’t have a strong middle class or a strong
economy if the bottom 90 percent gets none of the
nation’s income growth.
If the minimum wage had stayed above the $10.38 value
it had in 1968, it would have put upward pressure –
rather than downward pressure – on the average worker
wage. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, our nation’s largest
employers, couldn’t routinely pay $7.25 or a little
McDonald’s wages would be more like In-N-Out Burger,
which has an entry wage of $10 plus good benefits and
beats McDonald’s and other fast food chains in the new
Consumer Reports ratings for food, service, value and
speed. Wal-Mart’s wages would be closer to Costco,
which pays starting wages of $11, has the lowest
employee turnover in retail, doesn’t need to spend
money on advertising and outperforms Wal-Mart.
The 2010 American Values Survey found that 67 percent
of Americans supported increasing the minimum wage from
$7.25 to $10.
Critics routinely oppose minimum wage increases in good
times and bad, claiming wrongly they will increase
unemployment. The most rigorous studies of the impact
of actual minimum wage increases, including two studies
published recently in the journal Industrial Relations
and the Review of Economics and Statistics, show they
do not cause job losses – whether during periods of
economic growth or recession.
In the words of John Shepley, co-owner of Emory Knoll
Farms in Maryland and a member of Business for a Fair
Minimum Wage, “The notion that raising the minimum wage
will kill jobs is just bunk. People at the lower end of
earnings tend to spend 100 percent of their after-tax
income. They put it right back into local businesses
buying food, clothing, car repairs and other
necessities. … When the minimum wage is too low it not
only impoverishes productive workers, it weakens the
key consumer demand at the heart of our local economy.”
It’s time to stop stuffing the penthouse of the economy
with gold and rebuild the crumbling foundation. Holly
Holly Sklar's books include "Raise the Floor: Wages and
Policies That Work for All of Us," "A Just Minimum
Wage: Good for Workers, Business and Our Future" and
"Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban
Neighborhood." She can be reached at
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