January 14, 2014
From the White House to the Vatican, everyone these days seems to be talking about income inequality. But our politics hasn’t kept up. Concrete proposals that could actually narrow the gap between the rich and the rest of us haven’t yet moved onto our public policy center stage.
That could change in 2014.
We saw the first rumblings of that change this past fall in Switzerland, where young activists ran a spirited referendum campaign to cap Swiss CEO pay at 12 times worker wages. This 1:12 pay cap was running even in the polls until a corporate ad blitz sent the measure down to defeat late in November.
That setback hasn’t doused interest in pay ratios. In Germany, France, and Spain, activists are now working on their own versions of pay-ratio caps, and the ratio spirit has even spread to the United States, home to the world’s most generous CEO paychecks.
Major U.S. execs now average over 350 times the pay of America’s rank-and-file workers. How high does that CEO-worker pay gap go at individual corporations? We’ll soon know. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission will probably release new regulations soon that require America’s top corporations to annually reveal the ratio between their CEO and median worker compensation.
Activists aren’t waiting for these new pay ratio numbers to start emerging. They’re already mobilizing to build compensation ratios into the fabric of America’s economic life.
In Massachusetts, nurses have collected over 100,000 signatures for an initiative that would levy fines against any hospital in the state, profit or nonprofit, that compensates its CEO over 100 times the hospital’s lowest-paid worker.
State lawmakers now have until May to advance the nurses’ plan. If they don’t, nurses say they’ll collect the additional 11,000 signatures necessary to get their ratio plan on this November’s statewide ballot.
Similar ratio organizing has also hit another bastion of America’s growing inequality: college campuses. Compensation for academe’s top executives has been riding up a steep escalator over recent years, at the same time pay for faculty and staff has struggled just to keep pace with inflation.
Students on these campuses, meanwhile, are graduating into ever greater debt, and all these dynamics combined may help make the nation’s colleges the coming year’s most heated pay ratio battleground.
At St. Mary’s College, a prestigious liberal arts campus in southern Maryland, the pay-ratio battle has already begun.
Students at the public college have been organizing for pay justice for over a decade now. Between 2002 and 2006, their campaign for a campus-wide living wage boosted the lowest annual pay for school employees from $15,700 to $24,500.
But inflation has eroded that minimum wage. Pay for top college administrators, by contrast, has increased. Their pay even rose during what was supposed to be a statewide wage freeze.
This past September, students and allied faculty and staff formally unveiled a response to this newly widening gap: a proposal that would set their college’s lowest pay at 130 percent the official poverty level for a family of four and limit the college president’s pay to ten times that lowest pay.
This 1:10 ratio proposal will soon be going before the St. Mary’s student government and faculty and staff senates. The next goal after that: approval from the college’s board of trustees.
St. Mary’s activists have a broader goal as well. They’re hoping, as St. Mary’s emerita professor of psychology Laraine Glidden explains, to “not only address the wage inequity on our campus, but also inspire others to similar efforts.”
And those activists appear to be succeeding on that score. Students on other campuses have already made contact with them.
Those contacts will probably multiply in the year ahead. The Chronicle for Higher Education recently reported that 42 private college presidents took home over $1 million in 2011, the last year with data.
Two of these execs made over $3 million, a take-home almost 200 times the pay of a minimum-wage worker.
— OtherWords columnist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, edits the inequality weekly Too Much. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class. OtherWords.org