There are many faces of injustice. A member of Volkswagen's executive board recently said that he thought it was unfair that he earned 6 million ($7.8 million) last year. Only 6 million.
In 2011, he and his colleagues had earned between 7.2 and 8.1 million. Yet in 2012, Europe's largest carmaker did even better, with record-high revenues, sales and profits. According to their contracts, the board members should also have seen their earnings increase. Instead, their pay was cut by about 20 percent.
The supervisory board of the Wolfsburg-based company wanted to set an example. The salary of VW Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn was reduced to 14.5 million, and the salaries of the remaining top executives fell as well. Several of them were unable to understand why. After all, they argued, it was only the salary of their boss, which would have increased to 20 million without the cuts, that had trigged the current debate over executive pay.
It's not that he needs or desperately wants the money, says the executive whose salary was reduced to 6 million, but that he initially perceived the cut as an affront. In the mean time, he says, he has come to understand that there is more at stake when it comes to executive pay, namely the social acceptance of managers and the company. He now feels that the salary cut is "completely okay."
VW CEO Winterkorn and his fellow executives believed the matter to have been settled. At the Geneva Motor Show early last week, they expected to be talking about a new one-liter car (a car that gets 235 miles to the gallon). Instead, they were constantly asked about their salaries.
It is a hot topic throughout Europe these days. Earlier this month, the European Union moved to cap banker bonuses at twice their base salary as of 2014. In Switzerland, a referendum "against rip-off salaries" received a two-thirds majority, making company shareholders, as opposed to the supervisory board, responsible for determining executive pay. And in Berlin even Rainer Brüderle, the parliamentary floor leader for the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), portrayed himself as an opponent of excessive executive compensation. The Swiss solution, said Brüderle, was "pure FDP."
Merkel Speaks Out
The issue promises to be an important one this election year. All of Germany's major parties have recently felt compelled to comment on the issue, with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) planning to include the demand for an "established maximum relationship between base salary and bonuses" in its campaign platform.
On Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) followed suit. Completing yet another policy U-turn, senior CDU parliamentarian Michael Grosse-Brömer announced that the conservatives would introduce a law before the summer recess to regulate manager salaries.
In an interview with the newspaper Freie Presse, published on Wednesday, Merkel likewise entered the fray. "Exorbitance cannot be allowed in a free and socially minded society," she said, adding that she understands "when people shake their heads over salaries that tip the scale and want them to stop."
The amounts at issue in the current salary debate are indeed exorbitant. Deutsche Bank, for example, granted its star trader Christian Bittar a bonus of 80 million for 2008 alone. Bittar was not even a member of the executive board, and he is now under suspicion of having played a role in the manipulation of the benchmark LIBOR interest rate. Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis planned to pay its departing chairman Daniel Vasella 59 million to prevent him from working for rivals in the next six years. And the deferred compensation Daimler is guaranteeing its not particularly successful CEO, Dieter Zetsche, is worth about 40 million. In return, Zetsche doesn't have to work until he's 67; in fact, he can retire at 60 instead.
The market economy thrives on a certain amount of societal inequality. The chance to earn more money and accumulate more wealth animates people to improve their performance. But there is also an invisible limit, and when it is exceeded, the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom becomes big enough to jeopardize social harmony.
The poverty and wealth report released by the German government last week suggests that this gap has reached disconcerting proportions in Germany. Many can no longer support themselves with the money they earn in a full-time job. Almost one in four workers earn less than 9.15 an hour, which translates to about 19,000 a year. This is less than one-seven hundredth of what the CEO of VW makes.
It isn't just the scope of inequity that is so disconcerting, but also the fact that this development is only becoming more exacerbated. Average employee wages have increased by 6.1 percent since 2000, while the salaries of senior executives at companies traded on Germany's DAX stock exchange index have risen by almost 55 percent during that time period.
FDP politician Brüderle is utilizing the debate to question the system of German participative management. In publicly traded corporations, the supervisory board decides on the salaries of executive board members. Supervisory boards are divided equally between representatives of labor and capital. "Union leaders have been complicit," Brüderle says, "and now they are complaining about excesses."
Jörg Hofmann is one of the people Brüderle is referring to. He is a district manager for the metalworkers' union IG Metall in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg and a member of the Daimler supervisory board. Hofmann says that a few things have been changed, especially in response to pressure from employees at Daimler and other DAX-listed companies.
The changes were urgently needed, particularly in the case of Daimler. The Stuttgart-based company is well known for executive excess, a situation which only worsened as globalization fundamentally changed the German economy.
As recently as 1987, the average executive board member at a DAX-listed company earned the equivalent of 446,000 a year. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, German managers increasingly emulated their role models in the United States. American-style capitalism, driven by financial performance and shareholder value, increasingly took hold in Germany.
In 1998, Daimler acquired US automaker Chrysler -- and the American pay structure along with it. Critics said derisively that it was the primary motivation for the merger. Daimler's then chairman, Jürgen Schrempp, became Germany's top-paid manager, earning more than 7 million in 2002.
The Daimler-Chrysler merger proved to be one of the biggest flops in German economic history, and Schrempp was forced out in 2005. At the time of his involuntary departure, he owned stock options worth an estimated 50 million.
The unions went along with everything. There was an unwritten rule that shareholder representatives determined executive salaries and employee representatives rubber-stamped their decisions. In return, the unions could expect the capital side to accommodate their plans.
Union official Hofmann, not surprisingly, disagrees with this interpretation. He blames salary excesses on the "limits of co-determination." In other words, if there is a draw in a vote between representatives of capital and labor, the chairman of the supervisory board can exercise his right to a double vote.
In 2004, unions realized that this system was unsustainable. As co-defendant in the Mannesmann trial, former IG Metall Chairman Klaus Zwickel was accused of not having opposed 30 million in bonuses and financial settlements for Klaus Esser, who, at the time, was CEO of the former industrial conglomerate. It was a bitter defeat for the unions. How could they credibly represent the interests of ordinary employees if they didn't rebel against so many millions in executive compensation?
After the Mannesmann trial, union leaders became more critical of excessive executive pay. In addition, a law enacted in 2009 had a moderating effect. In many DAX-listed companies, the rules were changed so that a higher share of senior executives' salaries, often 70 percent, was based on company performance. When companies did poorly, as Daimler did in 2008, executive pay dropped. Schrempp's successor Zetsche saw his salary drop from 10 million to 5 million at the time.
Today, bonuses are usually dependent on several years' worth of performance. In addition, a cap was imposed on so-called golden handshakes, the severance packages top executives collect when they are released prematurely from their contracts.
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