FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Bold New Call for a Maximum Wage

How about taking a moment this Labor Day to reflect about those Americans who earn the least for their labor?

These Americans — workers paid the federal minimum wage — are now making $7.25 an hour. On paper, they’re making the same wage they made in July 2009, the last time we saw the minimum wage change. In reality, minimum-wage workers are making less today than they made last year because inflation has eaten away at their incomes.

Minimum-wage workers here in 2012 simply can’t purchase as much with their paychecks as they could in 2011. And if you go back a few decades, today’s raw deal gets even rawer. Back in 1968, minimum-wage workers took home $1.60 an hour. To make that much today, adjusting for inflation, a minimum-wage worker would have to earn $10.55 an hour.

In effect, minimum-wage workers today are taking home almost $7,000 less a year than minimum-wage workers took home in 1968.

Figures like these don’t particularly upset many of our nation’s most powerful, in either industry or government. We live in tough times, the argument goes. The small businesses that drive our economy simply can’t afford to pay their help any more than they already do.

But the vast majority of our nation’s minimum-wage workers don’t labor for Main Street mom-and-pops. They’re employed by businesses that no average American would ever call small. Two-thirds of America’s low-wage workers, the National Employment Law Project documented in July, work for companies that have at least 100 employees.

The 50 largest of these low-wage employers are doing just fine these days. Over the last five years, these 50 corporations — outfits that range from Walmart to Office Depot — have together returned $175 billion to shareholders in dividends or share buybacks.

And the CEOs at these companies last year averaged $9.4 million in personal compensation. A minimum-wage worker would have to labor 623 years to bring in that much money.

So what can we do to bring some semblance of fairness back into our workplaces? For starters, we obviously need to raise the minimum wage. But some close observers of America’s economic landscape believe we need to do more. A great deal more.

Count Larry Hanley among these more ambitious change agents. Hanley, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, sits on the AFL-CIO’s executive council, the labor movement’s top decision-making body. He recently called for a “maximum wage,” a cap on the compensation that goes to the corporate execs who profit so hugely off low-wage labor.

Hanley wants to see this maximum defined as a multiple of the pay that goes to a company’s lowest-paid worker. If we had a “maximum wage” set at 100 times that lowest wage, the CEO of a company that paid some workers as low as $16,000 a year could waltz off with annual pay no higher than $1.6 million.

During World War II, labor leader Hanley points out, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for what amounted to a maximum wage. FDR urged Congress to place a 100-percent tax on income over $25,000 a year, a sum that would now equal, after inflation, just over $350,000.

Congress didn’t go along. But FDR did end up winning a 94-percent top tax rate on income over $200,000, a move that would help usher in the greatest years of middle-class prosperity the United States has ever known.

Throughout World War II, FDR enjoyed broad support from within the labor movement — and the general public — for his pay cap notion. Now’s the time, Hanley believes, to put that notion back on the political table. We need, he says, “to start a national discussion about creating a maximum wage law.”

Hanley may just have started that discussion.

Sam Pizzigati is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, editor of the journal Too Much and author of The Rich Don’t Always Win, Seven Stories Press, New York, forthcoming 2012.

This column is distributed by OtherWords.


More articles by:

Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (Seven Stories Press). 

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail