A Labor Day tribute to American majority


AUSTIN, Texas -- Under the unwritten rules of corporate media, we spend 364 days a year focusing on the booming stock market, high tech, which CEO gets the highest pay, mergers, acquisitions, the retro fad for martinis and cigars, real-estate prices in the Hamptons, adventure travel, restaurant trends, the mumbling of Alan Greenspan and other leading economic indicators.

One day a year we write about the working class.

Lo, Labor Day has come slouching around again, so we media types have tacit permission to write about everybody whose stock portfolio is not bulging, those for whom no high-tech IPO looms on the horizon and those so deficient in color selection that they get pink slips instead of golden parachutes.

In other words, the majority of the American people.

And how amazed you will be to learn what information has accumulated since last the media deigned to take note of you.

Among the recent findings: If the minimum wage had grown at the same rate as CEO pay between 1990 and 1998, it would now be $22.08 instead of $5.15 an hour. This happy news comes to us from United for a Fair Economy, the outfit in Boston.

Income gap

Further, CEOs at the 365 largest corporations were paid 419 times the pay of average blue-collar workers ($10.6 million compared with about $25,000), up from a 120-to-1 ratio in 1990. This is what we call the "income gap."

In Japan, where social cohesion is a big cultural tradition, they got worried when their CEOs started making more than eight times the lowest-paid factory worker.

The Fair Economy people also report that CEO pay rose by 481 percent from '90 to '98, while worker pay rose 28 percent in the same period, just 5.5 percent more than inflation. And you wonder why you can't keep up with the bills?

The Standard and Poor's 500 index rose 224 percent in this period, and corporate profits rose 108 percent. And that's why many of us think there is a problem here with income distribution.

Our friends at the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities have a new study, "The Widening Income Gulf," showing that the average after-tax income of the richest 1 percent of the population more than doubled from 1977 to 1999, rising 115 percent after inflation.

But the average after-tax income for households in the middle of the income scale increased only 8 percent over the 22-year period, an average real gain of less than 0.5 percent a year, while the average income of the poorest fifth of Americans has gone down.

And more fun figures: The richest 1 percent has as much income as the 38 percent with the lowest incomes. The top 20 percent of households has slightly more income than the other 80 percent of households combined.

The AFL-CIO, which we get to quote once a year and ignore the rest of the time, has a new study of young American workers full of fascinating details, but I thought the most interesting stuff is the info that can't be expressed by percentages.

"Three-fourths of young workers today are not college graduates. These workers . . . are living in the shadows of the less populous but more glamorous up-and-coming professionals; their experiences and concerns typically are ignored by the popular media and in conventional economic analysis. Their voices are rarely heard. They are, in essence, the 'forgotten majority.'"

As the income gap increasingly separates those at the top (who make the decisions about how this society is run) from the great majority, it seems to me that making sure those voices get heard is more and more important -- so important, maybe, that we should celebrate Labor Day twice a year so some actual voices get through.

It's nice to know that 40 percent of young Latino workers between 18 and 24 think they will never be able to afford any college education. But it's even better to hear their own words, like those of the young woman in Milwaukee: "I feel like the owners of the companies kind of take what they want, and pretty much take all of it."

This is a generation working in an "hourglass economy." It is creating service and low-pay, low-skill jobs on the bottom, and high-tech, high-pay jobs at the top.

Even for many with college education, temp jobs with no benefits are the norm. Thirty percent of workers are in contingent jobs part-time, temporary, on-call or contract work. Forty percent of the young employees say it is all they can get.

One in six young adults will be a temporary worker before he or she turns 35. Only 5 percent of young temps have employer-provided health insurance. At Microsoft alone, there are at least 2,000 temporary workers who have been there a year or longer. The new word for them is "permatemps."

But there is good news: The unions and some community groups are busily organizing so that people who work full-time can make a living wage. Special Labor Day congratulations to Valley Interfaith and all the folks who worked so hard to get living wages in the poorest part of America, Texas' Rio Grande Valley.

They have had wins in several towns, bringing wages up from $5.15 to $6.25, $7 and $7.50 an hour. In an area where 45 percent of the people live below the poverty level, 65 percent of the children are economically disadvantaged, the unemployment rate is 21.3 percent and the per-capita income is $5,995 a year, this is the Lord's work.

Bless you.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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