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From Canada, a New Gold Standard

Wagemark is recognizing companies for curbing excessive CEO pay, not soaring profits.

The 32,400 employees at Goldman Sachs averaged $383,374 each last year, the Wall Street banking giant has just disclosed.

Typical employees at Goldman, of course, didn’t take home anything near that $383,374. Bank clerks nationally only average $24,100 a year. In 2012, Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein took home $26 million. This means he’s making over 1,000 times that of the lowest paid Goldman Sachs employees.

Across our nation, CEOs are pulling down over 350 times average U.S. worker pay. This isn’t just happening here. Canadian CEOs took home 105 times average Canadian pay in 1998. They’re taking home 171 times today.

What can we do to reverse this trend toward ever-wider pay gaps? Toronto-based public policy analyst Peter MacLeod has one idea. We need, he says, to start “naming and normalizing” a more rational and equitable standard for who gets what.

We need, in effect, to start honoring enterprises that practice fair pay and stop rewarding — with our consumer and tax dollars — those enterprises that are making our societies more unequal.

Last summer, MacLeod founded a new international effort to put this standard in place. His new initiative — Wagemark — has already begun certifying those enterprises that pay “competitive, responsible and sustainable wages.”

To gain Wagemark certification, enterprises must pay their top earner no more than eight times the pay of their workforce’s lowest-paid 10 percent.

This 8-to-1 standard may seem hopelessly utopian in a world where corporations routinely pay executives hundreds of times what they pay workers. But at least 90 percent of all businesses, MacLeod tells me, are currently operating “in a 15-to-1 or better universe.”

The “most conspicuously equitable” of these small- and medium-sized employers make up the initial core of Wagemark-certified organizations. Some of them — like the Bellwoods Brewery — already enjoy widespread name recognition in Canada, and this spring Wagemark will be announcing many more.

Wagemark-certified companies, nonprofits, and public agencies have all had an independent accountant confirm that their organization meets the Wagemark eight-times standard.

The word about Wagemark’s certification process is beginning to spread well beyond Canada’s borders. In Denmark, the nation’s largest newspaper gave Wagemark front-page coverage that sparked a week of national media dialogue about equity and pay.

Scandinavians, Peter MacLeod would learn from this discussion, “don’t find the 8-to-1 ratio particularly radical.” And Americans back in the middle of the 20th century, he adds, wouldn’t have considered an eight-times standard all that radical either.

Back then, even the largest American corporations seldom had pay divides between top executives and workers that went wider than 30-to-1. And America prospered. With a relatively narrow corporate pay gap in place, a mass middle class, the world’s first and finest, took root.

Our cultural pay paradigm — how we value workers and their work — has almost totally changed since then. Pay differentials that would have seemed unconscionable only a few decades ago now are business as usual.

Reversing this inequality “is going to take pressure from a lot of different directions,” MacLeod stresses. The folks at Wagemark see their work as a complement to campaigns for minimum and living wages and the drive to make tax systems more progressive, he says.

The Wagemark team has no illusions about Fortune 500 companies getting in line anytime soon to apply for its 8-to-1 ratio certification. But they do see Wagemark really helping to turn up the heat on corporations that continue to brazenly manufacture inequality.

Wagemark hopes to work with city officials, for instance, on incorporating pay ratios into the government procurement process, by giving firms that meet the Wagemark pay ratio standard a leg up in the contract bidding process.

“We’re really excited about starting small at the municipal level and then expanding,” MacLeod says. “Check back with us in five years.”

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