CEOs Earn 354 Times More Than Average Worker

income inequalityThe latest fun figure about our country's growing income inequality: The average big company CEO earns 354 times that of the average rank-and-file worker.

That statistic comes courtesy of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of trade unions in the country, which has been tracking this ratio since 1996, according to its corporate finance specialist Patrick O'Meara. It updates the information annually on its website "Executive PayWatch," which allows you to compare your own pay to that of top tier executives -- so you can feel inspired to work harder or be overwhelmed with righteous fury, depending on your inclination.

Average CEO Pay Is $12.3 Million: CEOs of the S&P 500, an index of the largest 500 companies publicly traded on the stock market, earned an average $12.3 million in 2012, reported the AFL-CIO. The average "rank and file worker," defined as a worker not in supervisory position, was around $34,645 last year, according to an AFL-CIO analysis of Department of Labor data. That means your average worker would need to labor for 360 years and 10 months to earn the same as a big league CEO.

More: McDonald's Server Have to Work 550 Years To Earn CEO's Pay

That's actually down from 2011, but not because CEOs took a pay cut, or workers got a raise. "It's the Tim Cook factor," says Josh Goldstein, a spokesman for the trade organization, in reference to the CEO of Apple Inc., who received a one-time stock award of almost $400 million that year. With Cook back to a somewhat normal CEO compensation level in 2012, the average took a 5 percent dip. But in reality, Goldstein says, CEO pay actually went up 5 percent.

In the past few decades, CEO compensation has soared, while working class wages have hardly budged. Income inequality today is so stark that some commentators have called it a new "Gilded Age." CEO pay went down in the recession, and hasn't yet returned to the $14.8 million average of 2006, "but it's still above what it was in 2002," says O'Meara, "and well above what it was 1992."

The AFL-CIO has good reason to focus on the subject. Some researchers say the decline of unions is one of the major factors for this growing income gulf, as organized labor had buoyed wages in both unionized and non-unionized workplaces.

More: Wages Stink At America's Most Common Jobs

Why is the gap growing? Various explanations have been offered, including the growing financial advantage of a college education, the rise in global competition, the illegal influx of immigrants, the failure of the minimum wage to keep step with inflation, the inadequacy of our K-12 schools, and anti-labor policies from above. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, corporate executives and workers in the financial sector are responsible for the lion's share of the remarkable growth in the income of the top 1 percent.

And at this time of high unemployment, it's the low-wage workers who are in the thorniest spot. It's hard to bargain for a higher wage, when there are three people behind you willing to take your job.

How do you feel about the wage gap?

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Claire Gordon

Staff Writer

Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.

Follow Claire on Twitter. Email Claire at claire.gordon@teamaol.com. Add Claire to your Google+ circles.

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