The September 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Police Raids on Fresno Homeless

Memorial to Mary Who Died

New Orleans After Katrina

Troubles for the Berkeley Housing Authority

Link Between Foster Care and Homelessness

An Epidemic of Rising Poverty

Angel Behind Prison Bars

Blaming Street People for Cody's Demise

MASC Storage Lockers Offer New Help

Interview with Osha Neumann, Artist/Attorney

Resisting Unjust CEO Pay Rates

Liberation from Hell of Addiction

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Social Change

Sept. Poetry of the Streets

Review of Jan Steckel's Poems


July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005




Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Beyond the Living Wage: A New Challenge for Progressives

by Sam Pizzigati, United for a Fair Economy

Top executives at U.S. corporations take home 411 times more than average workers.

Over the past dozen years, probably no grassroots campaign has excited progressives more -- and generated more real victories -- than the living wage movement. More than 120 communities, big and small alike, have now enacted ordinances that require businesses that win government contracts to pay a living wage.

These victories have made an undeniable impact. Low-wage workers from Baltimore to Los Angeles have seen their annual take-home pay rise by hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.
Yet, as a sobering new report reminds us, the pay gap in America's workplaces between workers and top executives has actually widened, and significantly so.

Last year, notes "Executive Excess 2006," a just-released report from the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, top executives at major U.S. corporations took home 411 times more than average workers. In 1994, at the birth of the living wage movement, chief executive pay outpaced pay for average workers by only 142 times.

All this concentrating of wealth at the top of our corporate ladder has become America's single biggest engine of inequality. Between 1993 and 2003, according to researchers at Harvard and Cornell, the top five executives at America's 1,500 biggest companies more than doubled their share of corporate earnings. These top execs took home $290 billion, over a quarter of a trillion dollars.

The impact of executive pay jackpots on our great divide actually goes far beyond the sheer immensity of this $290 billion. To fatten corporate bottom lines and hit those jackpots, executives have downsized workers, outsourced jobs, gutted pensions, trimmed benefits, and slashed R & D. These executive decisions, taken together, have left American workers appreciably poorer -- and U.S. companies considerably less competitive.

How have progressives responded? Trade unions and activist religious groups have taken the lead. They've pressed resolutions against CEO pay excess at annual corporate shareholder meetings. And they've lobbied for new rules that could help shareholders challenge corporate boards that wink at executive pay outrages.

But organizing against executive pay excess remains, by and large, a low priority for most progressives. That's a shame. The struggle against greed in the suites could become, with a strategic approach imaginative enough, a wonderful opportunity to shove corporate behavior and power back onto America's political radar screen.

And what might that approach be? The new "Executive Excess 2006" report offers a provocative suggestion: Let's build on the successes of the living wage movement. Living wage campaigns all start from the same basic assumption. Our public tax dollars should not, as activists from ACORN put it, "be subsidizing poverty-wage work."

Our public tax dollars should not be subsidizing executive jackpots either. But right now they are. Corporations routinely pocket government contracts and subsidies that translate into mega-paydays for their top executives.

Just one example: CEOs at the nation's top 34 defense industry companies, the new "Executive Excess" report documents, have seen their average pay double since the "War on Terror" began. This sort of profiteering is going on throughout the U.S. economy. Nearly every major corporation in the United States today is taking in substantial revenue from government contracts, subsidies, tax breaks, or grants.

The living wage movement, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, is organizing to place strings on these contracts and subsidies. No tax dollars, the living wage movement demands, to companies that pay poverty wages! Why not ratchet up that demand? No tax dollars for companies that pay plutocrat wages!

One member of Congress is already moving in this direction. Rep. Martin Sabo from Minnesota has proposed legislation that would deny corporations tax deductions on any executive compensation that runs over 25 times what a company's lowest-paid workers receive. Under current law, the more corporations lavish on their executives in "incentives," the more they can deduct off their corporate income taxes.

Sabo's Income Equity Act offers a precedent that could be extended to any situation that involves the transfer of tax dollars to private corporate entities. In a jurisdiction that has already enacted a living wage ordinance, for instance, progressives could insist that no government contracts ought to go to companies that pay their top executives over 25 times that jurisdiction's living wage.

With a rule like this in place, top corporate executives would suddenly find themselves with an incredibly powerful personal incentive to advocate for a higher living wage.

As a nation, we already deny our tax dollars to companies that discriminate, in their employment policies, against women and people of color. We've determined that our tax dollars must not subsidize corporate practices that widen racial and gender inequality.
So why should we let our tax dollars widen economic inequality? That doesn't make sense. Then again, excessive inequality never does.

Sam Pizzigati, a contributor to "Executive Excess 2006," edits Too Much, an online weekly on excess and inequality. His email: United for a Fair Economy raises awareness of the damaging consequences of concentrated wealth and power.

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