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What is featherbedding?

By  Yoke Wong

Reviewed by Vanessa Kintu

Fact checked by Richard Reed

Featherbedding definition

Featherbedding refers to the labour union rule or safety statute requiring employers to hire more employees than are needed or to limit production.

The featherbedding meaning is derived from the practice of using feathers to fill mattresses in beds to provide more comfort. 

The term was used in the US in the 1950s to refer to the labour relations where unions negotiated contracts with railway employers to put in place rules which would generate work and salaries for workers to protect jobs. The labour rules required employers to compensate workers for little or no work, or for complex and time-consuming work. 

The practice of featherbedding has also been legally codified in statutes and laws in some countries. For example, in the US, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, officially known as the National Labor Relations Act, defines featherbedding in section 8(b)(6) “as any agreement or union demand for payment of wages for services which are not performed or not to be performed”.

The statutes banned unions from the practice of featherbedding and charging excessive dues or initiation fees. 

How featherbedding works

Labour unions use featherbedding practices to provide jobs for workers who may otherwise be unemployed. The rules would require employers to hire more employees than necessary for the amount of work required and may also include adding time-consuming tasks and procedures to create jobs. This often adds additional operating costs for the company and reduces its overall productivity.

Unions can also require employers to retain employees who are no longer needed or hire workers who are overqualified for the job.  

Featherbedding examples

The modern use of featherbedding in labour practice originated from the railroad industry in the US in 1960 to 1970. Following the merger of the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads into the Penn Central Railroad, the union successfully negotiated a job security agreement. 

According to J.A Lipowski writing in the Transportation Law Journal, “featherbedding practices, although often arising from contracts or agreements between management and labour, have been encouraged in large part by state and federal laws”.

For example, under the Arkansas full-crew statute, a crew of six (an engineer, a fireman, a conductor and three brakemen) was required on freight train operations, regardless of any modern equipment such as automatic couplers and air brakes. Switch crews of six were also required unless the operated railroads were less than 100 miles.

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