DETROIT – Maybe it shouldn’t be called Labor Day anymore.

How about Chief Executive Officer’s Day? Or maybe Upper-Middle-Class Family Day?

First celebrated in New York in 1882 as a “workingmen’s holiday,” Labor Day 2007 is less a day of rest for wage earners than another day for them to worry about their economic futures.

A variety of data show that the average worker continues to lose ground to CEOs and others at the top of the wage scale.

Nationally, median family income rose a slight 0.7 percent in 2006 for the second straight year, from $47,845 in 2005 to $48,201, according to Census Bureau figures released Wednesday.

But the census figures showed that median family income rose nationwide because more family members were working or were working more hours.

Individual wages for men and for women nationwide actually fell slightly, according to census figures.

And the share of income going to the top fifth of households was 50.5 percent, the highest share since 1967, according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

“Too many low- and middle-income families aren’t sharing in the gains,” said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

Detroit, a bulwark of the labor movement and the home of legendary United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, who would have been 100 years old this year, was virtually tied with Buffalo, N.Y., as the nation’s poorest large city last year.

Nearly a third of the Detroit’s residents lived below the poverty line, census figures show.

Curtis Christner, a 53-year-old-retiree of the Flint Delphi East plant who took a buyout last year, says he’s doing OK because of his pension and income from his wife’s job.

“But I feel sad about the whole situation at Delphi,” said Christner, of Davidson. “It’s even harder for the workers there to make ends meet because of cuts in wages and benefits.”

But the story is much brighter for CEOs of major corporations and the wealthiest in society.

CEOs of major corporations earned 262 times what average wage earners made in 2005, the latest available figure from the Economic Policy Institute shows. In 1965, CEOs earned just 24 times an average worker’s salary, according to the EPI.

Another study from The Corporate Library, a corporate governance watchdog group in Portland, Maine, found CEO pay rose 23.8 percent last year from 2005. The average CEO of a company listed in the Standard & Poor’s 500 made $14.78 million in 2006, according to the group.

And the poster child for excessive CEO pay recently moved to Michigan.

He’s Robert Nardelli, the new CEO of Chrysler LLC. The former CEO of Home Depot, Nardelli left the company under fire for its poor stock performance and his excessive pay.

Nardelli walked away from Home Depot earlier this year with a $200 million severance package.

His pay at Chrysler, now a private company, hasn’t been disclosed. But it reportedly will be tied to the automaker’s financial performance.

Why are CEOs being paid so well, while many workers struggle to pay their home mortgages and make ends meet?

“Because they can get away with it,” said EPI President Larry Mishel.

Mishel and others say CEO pay is often set by well-paid directors who are simply paying what the market will bear, similar to the way entertainers and professional athletes are paid.

“CEO pay is totally disconnected from worker pay,” Mishel said.

But some conservative and business-related groups say many workers are well paid and generally happy with their jobs.

U.S. manufacturing workers earned an average $68,680 last year, up 4 percent from $66,181 in 2005, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

And national polls done by the Gallup Organization for the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that 43 percent of all workers last year were “completely satisfied” with their jobs, compared to 29 percent in 1989.

Some say U.S. corporations, which are moving many operations to low-wage countries, are the real reason workers are falling behind economically.

“The flagship industries of this nation are leaving the country and trashing communities along the way,” said Gregg Shotwell, a former Delphi Coopersville plant worker who recently transferred to General Motors Corp.’s Service Parts Operations in Lansing. “We’re definitely losing ground.”

Rick Haglund is a business writer for Booth Newspapers. E-mail him at [email protected]
Detroit, a bulwark of the labor movement, was virtually tied with Buffalo, N.Y., as the nation’s poorest large city last year.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.