Featherbedding: A Way of Life
JUNE 01, 1960 by LEONARD E. READ
That’s a helluva way to run a railroad!—a common expression directed at actions patently absurd.
This colloquialism might not have stemmed from the economic absurdities imposed on American railroads, but it surely applies to that industry in this nation today.¹ The absurdities here in question are popularly alluded to as "featherbedding." For instance:
The railroads are forced to hire "firemen" who tend no fires on push-button locomotives.
A railroad in recently was required to pay each member of a yard crew 32 hours’ wages for 111/2 hours of work.
For this same job, it later had to pay three days’ additional wages for a second crew that did no work whatever, yet claimed "it should" have been called to do it.
Eight engine crews are required on the 16-hour run of a famous name passenger train between New York and Chicago.
When a contractor used his own self-propelled railroad crane in the construction of the Prudential Building in Chicago, work rules required a railroad to furnish an engineer as "pilot," even though the crane was operating on an unused track.
A westbound freight makes a stop every day at the North Dakota border, not to pick up cars but to take on a third brakeman. Two brakemen are enough in Minnesota, but North Dakota has an "excess crew" law and requires another completely surplus man. Just over the Montana line, the train stops and lets the unnecessary brakeman off. Two brakemen are again enough across Montana and Idaho—but as the train nears the Washington border, a third brakeman once more is added since Washington also has a long-outmoded excess-crew law.
The above are only random samples of union inspired featherbedding—as obviously absurd to the layman as they are disgusting to the economist. Such practices, in railroading alone, according to The American Association of Railroads, cost $1,500,000 each day!2
American railroads, however, are not the only sufferers from this affliction. A person intimately familiar with the construction industry could detail the featherbedding in that important segment of our economy. An individual who knows the entertainment business could describe the orchestras paid for not playing, the stage hands "employed" to do nothing, the electricians drawing checks for hours of idleness, ad nauseam. Similar to elevator operators getting paid for not operating automatic elevators! Or, bogus typesetting!³ The list of these labor union "accomplishments" is staggering.
Accurate Definition Needed
What, in essence, is this thing called featherbedding? The definition in my desk dictionary must have been written by a devotee of "the new economics": "The practice of limiting work or output in order to provide more jobs and prevent unemployment."
Here is a more picturesque as well as a more accurate definition of featherbedding: The bedding down of self with feathers coercively taken from others and with nothing whatever given in exchange.
With this figurative but otherwise accurate definition in mind, it is appropriate to examine the scope of this practice. Is featherbedding accepted and sponsored by labor unions alone? Or are others equally guilty? Is featherbedding becoming more and more a way of life in our country? If so, maybe some of us who are concerned about the motes in the eyes of labor leaders should look to the beams in our own eyes, lest we find ourselves in the awkward position of the pot that called the kettle black.
What about the farmers who receive hundreds of millions of dollars annually for not growing things? Are they not being bedded down with "feathers" coercively taken from the rest of us?
What about the people in the Tennessee Valley who get their power and light at below-cost rates? There’s a multimillion dollar deficit each year, which the rest of us are forced to make up. Aren’t these people being bedded down with "feathers" coercively taken from the rest of us?
And the manufacturer who stays in business by having a tax imposed upon his competitors’ products? Is this any less featherbedding than labor union outlawing of spray painting in order to compel a continuance of the more expensive and time consuming brush painting?
Examine the federal budget—as "wordy" as Manhattan‘s Telephone Directory—for thousands upon thousands of examples of resort to the Marxian ideal, "From each according to ability, to each according to need"! Subsidies for travel by plane or bus or ships at sea, farm price supports, federal subventions to states or districts or communities, tariffs, or whatever—all are examples of featherbedding, just as absurd as "firemen" drawing wages on pushbutton diesels.
If anyone doubts that featherbedding is the "new" way of life in these United States, then let him carefully examine the platform of the two major political parties as they emerge from this summer’s conventions. Each will try to out-do the other’s promise of free-feathers-for-all, meanwhile minimizing the fact that you know-who will be plucked in the process. And, at the same time, each will pay fervent lip service to the American way of life, personal responsibility, private enterprise, lower taxes, and an end to inflation.
This sort of political double talk will go on as long as it is marketable, as long as the current naivete among the citizenry persists: or, conversely, until more vote leaders than now recognize featherbedding, not only in its labor union form but in all its other forms, for precisely what it is—political jobbery.
1 According to Time: “When Rock Island railroadmen complained about their corncob-filled caboose mattresses half a century ago, the trainmaster chided, ‘What do you want—feather beds?’ Since then featherbedding– the term loosely coined from this incident to describe the purposeful spreading out of work to make jobs – has become an emotion-packed point of dispute between U.S. management and labor in a broad spectrum of industries.”
2 Interestingly enough, this is about the daily cost of another featherbedding practice: storing of the surplus farm commodities built up by the government’s price-support program.
3 Today, many advertisements come to newspapers in mats, sent by the agencies. The typesetters, however, are not to be dome out of their wage. They set duplicate advertisements in type, run of proofs, proofread their handiwork and, the, promptly knock down the type!
4 No one needs a degree in economics to understand that featherbedding does not provide jobs. Simply imagine everybody being hired to produce nothing. Further, to regard payment for doing nothing as a job is to rob the word of its meaning. “Jobbery” is the right word for this.