US unions, weakened by public apathy and internal splits, are fighting back with an online database that accuses corporate supremos of lining their own pockets while grinding down their employees.
Business leaders are deeply unhappy at the online initiative of the AFL-CIO workers' federation, accusing union bosses of taking a cheap shot when complex issues are at stake.
US corporate excess under fire as unions go on the attack
But the AFL-CIO affiliate behind the site, Working America, says there is nothing cheap about the pay packages on offer to the favoured few while millions of blue-collar Americans fret about losing their jobs and benefits.
"The public should be able to question the outrageous pay of CEOs at a time when jobs are being outsourced every day and their health and safety is endangered every day," Working America deputy director Robert Fox told AFP.
The site at www.workingamerica.org has information on more than 60,000 US companies, detailing their violations of health and safety legislation, their outsourcing of jobs overseas and the pay deals for chief executives.
The group says it had to fight hard to prise health and safety data out of the government, resorting to the Freedom of Information Act only to find the data was kept on reel-to-reel computer tapes or decades-old IBM cartridges.
"It's been virtually impossible for normal people to gain access to this kind of information, certainly not on an easily accessible site like this," Fox said.
Citing a study by compensation consultant Pearl Meyer and Partners for The New York Times, the AFL-CIO says that in 2004, the average CEO of a major company received 9.84 million dollars in total compensation.
The average shop-floor worker, in contrast, earned 27,485 dollars.
The highest paid CEO of last year, according to Working America, was Yahoo's Terry Semel, who earned 109.3 million dollars in salary, stock options and perks.
For that kind of money, the AFL-CIO said, more than 53,000 uninsured workers could gain health coverage or just under 27,000 working mothers could receive daycare for their children for one year.
The site's new "Jobtracker" function names 71 companies in Michigan, in the US industrial heartland, that have outsourced jobs to cheaper bases and another 1,951 that have violated health and safety regulations in the state.
Employers' groups are scathing about the database. They note the AFL-CIO has been losing members for decades and earlier this year, suffered a split when seven of its unions formed a rival group called the Change to Win Coalition.
"It's a desperate act by a desperate group that's slowly disappearing and slowly losing relevance," said Pat Cleary, senior vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
"They've been on this anti-business beat for 20 years or so and it's not resonated with the public yet, so I don't think it will start to resonate any time soon," he added.
About 12.5 percent of US workers were union members in 2004, according to government statistics, down from about one-third a half-century ago. In the private sector, unions represent only about eight percent of employees.
University of Maryland business professor Peter Morici said the unions were shooting themselves in the foot.
"It's unfortunate that the AFL-CIO has resorted to mudslinging at corporate leaders instead of espousing a coherent view of what it intends to do to safeguard American workers' jobs," he said.
"If they continue down this road, all they're going to do is encourage more American companies to up stake and outsource their jobs overseas."
Working America is unapologetic. "We want to shine a spotlight on behaviour that damages the quality of life of American workers," Fox said.
© 2005 AFP