What Is Featherbedding?

Pablo Garcia

In the US, Featherbedding refers to a labor union practice developed as an offset against the layoff or termination of its workers due to newly acquired technologies. The practice may require employers to use minimum crew sizes for certain tasks or to pay for work that may be unnecessary. Practices referred to as featherbedding are generally negotiated by a union for inclusion in collective bargaining agreements with the employer.

Labor unions allow groups of employees to band together to influence their pay structure, among other things.
Labor unions allow groups of employees to band together to influence their pay structure, among other things.

The interests of labor unions are to keep as many members employed at the best wages possible. The interest of employers is to create the best product in the most cost-effective way. With continuous advances in technology, tensions over featherbedding still arise. Historically, government reaction to the practice was to try to outlaw it.

The Lea Act, passed by Congress in 1946, addressed union practices in the radio broadcasting industry. The Act made it unlawful to compel a broadcasting company to employ “any person or persons in excess of the number needed to provide the actual services.” A year later, the Taft-Hartley Act made it illegal for a union to demand in a labor contract that its members be paid wages for work they did not perform, declaring it an unfair labor practice under Department of Labor regulations.

Both statutes were interpreted very narrowly by the US Supreme Court. Employers can be required to pay wages for unnecessary or useless tasks, as long as the work was performed. In one case, a newspaper printed advertisements that its customers had prepared themselves. The terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the newspaper and the union required the paper to remake the ads using union workers. The Court held that payment to the union printers was lawful because they did their work, even though the customer-prepared ads were ultimately placed in the newspaper.

Payments to workers who did nothing were also held to be legal, so long as they were willing to do work which should have been available to them. The case involved union musicians under a collective bargaining agreement with a theater. The musicians were to play any time an orchestra from another city was to perform. No orchestras were ever booked or scheduled to perform by the theater, however, the workers had been prepared to perform under the agreement.

The practice of featherbedding came into being as unions resisted member displacement by new technologies. Today, inclusion of minimum work crew sizes and assignment to “make-work” tasks in the absence of any other work are still considered legitimate collective bargain strategies, as they maximize wages and keep workers employed. It is only bargaining to be paid for work that is available, but is not done, that is considered an unfair labor practice.

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