All Commentary
Wednesday, June 1, 1960

Featherbedding: A Way of Life

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.

Political Jobbery


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.

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”