Labor Day, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's history of the holiday, is "a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country."
But while society takes a day off to celebrate the fruits born of the sweat of the proletariat's brow, there are those who remind us that this is no time to forget what the working class' bosses are up to.
The Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning research group that has assiduously chronicled the relentless rise of executive compensation for 20 years, has compiled a compendium of its annual reports giving workers plenty to get riled up about on their extra day of rest.
In reviewing its annual lists of the 25 highest-paid CEOs at U.S. public companies since 1993, the institute finds that of the 500 spots on those 20 lists, 38 percent are occupied by chief executives who either led firms that failed or were bailed out in the 2008 financial crisis; were fired; or paid out millions in fines to settle fraud charges.
The 189 executives include multiple CEOs who would rather be forgotten by those who believe executives are worth their weight in gold: former Tyco International chief L. Dennis Kozlowski, convicted of larceny, securities fraud, conspiracy and falsifying business records; former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, convicted of fraud, conspiracy and other charges; and Merrill Lynch's John Thain, whose $35,000 commode helped flush the financial giant down the drain.
Of the 241 chief executives who made the highest-paid lists over the last 20 years, only four were females: Avon's Andrea Jung, who made the annual list twice; Carol Bartz of Yahoo; Irene Rosenfeld of Mondelez International, the snack food company spun out of Kraft Foods; and Marion Sandler of subprime lender Golden West Financial.
After converting pay in prior years to 2012 dollars, the institute found three chief executives each earned more than $1 billion over the last 20 years: Oracle's Lawrence Ellison ($1.8 billion); Sanford Weill of Travelers and Citigroup ($1.5 billion); and Disney's Michael Eisner ($1.4 billion).
Like many summations on the topic, there are elements of outrage and frustration in the institute's findings. The institute said it began examining the issue in the early 1990s because of what it called "outrageously lavish CEO pay levels."
It turns out those were the good old days, when the ratio between CEO pay and the pay of the average worker was a mere 195-to-1. Today, it's 354-to-1, according to the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for labor organizations.
"Two decades have essentially recalibrated our nation's moral sensibilities. The outrageous has become the everyday," the report glumly notes.
That reality reflects the fact that while critics believed greater disclosure of executive pay would shame the ruling class into moderation, it has enabled them to keep up with the Joneses by making it easier to determine what their peers are making and demand as much or more.
Reformers put too little faith in the observation of economist Adam Smith who noted: "With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches."
The institute also concedes that one of the reforms that pay critics had much hope for -- shareholder advisory votes on executive pay plans -- has "so far done little to slow the executive pay march."
But all hope is not lost, according to the authors of the report. There is still the provision in the 2010 Dodd-Frank reform bill that requires companies to publicly compare the pay of top executives with the pay of the average worker.
Alas, three years after Congress tried to cure executive pay abuses once and for all -- or cause voters to think they were actually doing something about it -- the Securities and Exchange Commission has yet to issue regulations implementing the mandated pay comparison. The agency is expected to release a draft proposal this fall.
It will be met with opposition from some quarters. Critics cite practical concerns about the time and expense involved in compiling the data. They say multinational corporations will face some of the most costly challenges, including converting the pay of overseas workers from local currencies to U.S. dollars.
House Republicans are trying to outlaw the provision by backing the Burdensome Data Collection Relief Act, introduced in March by U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich. The House Financial Services Committee approved the measure in June, 36-21. Five of the committee's 28 Democrats sided with the Republican majority.
Despite the institute's diligent and ongoing efforts, it appears that ever-rising executive pay is as much of an American institution as Labor Day. Just as surely as the proletariat will parade on the streets of Pittsburgh on the first Monday of September for years to come, those who believe CEOs are too handsomely compensated will perennially parade the most egregious offenders to make a case for reform.
Only true believers think parades accomplish something more than moving a herd from Point A to Point B. Evidently, that's what keeps those doggies movin'.
Len Boselovic: email@example.com or 412-263-1941.