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Labor's campaign rhetoric downplaying income gap

For the labor movement, Public Enemy No. 1 has long been the nation's growing income gap. John J. Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president, frequently complains in speeches that the economic boom under President Clinton has left millions of hard-working Americans behind and that corporate chieftains have rewarded themselves richly while downsizing their work forces and clamping down on wages.

To fan the flames of blue-collar and white-collar discontent, the labor federation has set up a Web site ( that shows workers how many hundreds of times more the CEOs at their companies earn than they do.

And now comes Vice President Al Gore, who has borrowed much of labor's class-edged, us-against-them rhetoric, with an eye to making America's steel-mill workers and truck drivers feel enthusiastic about his candidacy. Gore rails against the powerful and declares himself the champion of working families. Intending to please the have-nots and the have-littles, Gore says he will oppose "a huge tax cut for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else." In his embrace of labor, Gore spoke alongside Sweeney in Pittsburgh on Labor Day.

But while co-opting some AFL-CIO rhetoric (Sweeney's favorite phrase is "working families"), Gore steers clear of the income gap, which only widened on his and Clinton's watch.

While the Clinton administration points to statistics showing that the gap has grown far more slowly than under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, recent trends are still daunting. Last year, it took 100-million of the lowest earning Americans to equal the after-tax dollars of the top 1 percent. In 1977, it took only 49-million of the lowest earners to equal the top 1 percent.

Another politically embarrassing nugget: The bottom four-fifths of households _ numbering 217-million _ took a thinner slice of the nation's economic pie last year, 50 percent, than in 1977, when it was 56 percent. One reason, according to data from the Congressional Budget Office, was that nine-tenths of the growth in the economic pie since then went to the richest 1 percent of households, which last year averaged $515,600 in after-tax income, up from $234,700 in 1977.

With the campaign heating up, labor leaders have been bringing up the income gap less frequently, partly because focusing on it might embarrass their preferred candidate. In an interview, Sweeney said that he had not forgotten the issue, but that many of the forces spurring the gap were largely beyond the control of the Democratic administration. For instance, rapid technological change and the decline in manufacturing have wiped out millions of unskilled jobs and have thus held down wages.

Sweeney praised the Clinton-Gore team for pressing for legislation that would reduce the income gap, both pre-tax and after-tax. He cited the administration's push for a higher minimum wage, more money for job training and billions of dollars for an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit.

The AFL-CIO president added that he expected the Republican presidential nominee, Gov. George W. Bush, to do considerably less than Gore to help middle-income and low-income Americans. Bush asserts that his proposed $1.3-trillion tax cut will do far more for the middle class than Gore's proposal for a smaller, focused tax cut.

Bush campaigned with a $40,000-a-year teacher and high school coach from Louisiana, Andrew Beechac, who hailed Bush's tax proposal, saying: "We all want tax relief, especially for my family and for middle America around the country. We really need this plan."

Geoffrey Garin, a pollster who often advises the AFL-CIO, predicted that workers concerned about the income gap would be unlikely to favor Bush. "The concern about Bush among AFL-CIO members," he said, "is that he will be a rich man's president and will have the kinds of policies that are designed to let the well-to-do have all the benefits of the economy. And they think Gore will be much more likely to spread the benefits around."

As evidence that Bush's policies would widen the gap, labor leaders point to his proposal to allow individual states to opt out of any increase in the minimum wage beyond the current $5.15 an hour.

Some unions _ most notably the Teamsters, which only recently endorsed Gore _ are not willing to give the vice president a pass on the swelling income gap. For these unions, globalization and freer trade are among the biggest factors behind the widening gap. James P. Hoffa, the Teamsters' president, has often argued that trade liberalization measures, like the administration-backed China trade bill, encourage a flood of imports from low-wage countries and an exodus of American jobs. These developments, Hoffa said, and many free-trade economists acknowledge, help hold down blue-collar wages and thereby worsen the income gap.

Sweeney has sought to convince the Teamsters that the best way to reduce income disparities is to elect a Democrat. "Many of the initiatives the administration has taken to spread the wealth more fairly, like increasing the minimum wage, have consistently been blocked by the Republican leadership in the Congress," he said.

+ Steven Greenhouse writes for the New York Times, where this commentary first appeared. +

New York Times News Service