The Featherbedding Files, Entry 1

One of my ongoing interests is a somewhat forgotten chapter of US labor history, the fight over productivity and output  restriction that went by the derogatory name of  “featherbedding.”  Below you will find a bit of writing about “featherbedding” that I prepared for a conference proposal. Over the next while, I might post some relevant block quotes from my research, probably with minimal annotation (if I set up the rules in this way, I might actually follow through). So, “Featherbedding Files” entries will likely serve as a kind of copybook for this project. Of course, should any helpful reader encounter quotes or sources that seem relevant, my debt to him or her would be incalculable.

In 1948, Fred A. Hartley, Republican congressman from New Jersey, penned a book called Our New National Labor Policy. Hartleys’ tome celebrated the previous year’s passage of the Labor Relations Act that he had co-sponsored with Robert Taft. As in the legislation itself (usually referred to as “Taft-Hartley” in US political discourse), a significant chunk of Hartley’s book took aim at the particular evil that labor’s enemies called “featherbedding” (the restriction of output by workers, or requirement that employers pay for “make work” meant to offset the job losses that accompanied the introduction of new technologies). While today we link Taft-Hartley with its infamous “right-to-work” provisions and proscription of secondary boycotts (laws that continue to hamper the development of the US labor movement), and sometimes even recall its anticommunist clauses, we tend to forget that the Act had anything to say about featherbedding (if we can remember what featherbedding even means in the first place).

“No labor leader,” Hartley wrote, “can contend that the good of labor is advanced through ‘featherbedding’ tactics that are actually nothing less than legalized racketeering.” If labor really needed the “unfair advantages” that accrued from “featherbedding,” then reasonable people would have to conclude that “the whole system” under which postwar Americans lived and worked was wrong. Such a conclusion, of course, was unthinkable (110).

What is striking about Hartley’s charge is that, in many ways, he was correct. What kind of system was a capitalism that required workers to fashion bizarre and inefficient work rules? Who would defend such irrationality and atavism? While labor leaders in the late 1940s could easily decry “right-to-work” laws, and while those same union defenders didn’t need to look very hard for reasons to object to loyalty pledges (even if most labor leaders and labor-friendly intellectuals at the time were also militantly anticommunist), almost no one in the mainstream of labor-management relations would rise to defend featherbedding as a positive good, a practice beneficial to the nation’s economy. This was not because a Left or liberal defense of featherbedding was theoretically impossible: there was plenty of precedent for a politics of output restriction based on a Marxist understanding of political economy, a syndicalist politics of workers’ control, or even as part of a larger demand for state planning of the economy in a more worker-friendly key. But the exigencies of the postwar political economy and of early Cold War labor-liberal intellectual culture meant that such defenses would not be, and indeed could not be, deployed.

Instead, the fight over featherbedding witnessed a strange convergence of labor’s enemies, labor’s allies, and much of the labor leadership itself in a common ethical vision centered around the imperative that workers perform at a maximum level of exertion throughout the working day. This ethical vision, which historian Anson Rabinbach calls “productivism,” had deep roots in US and European business, medical, and engineering discourses. It also contained deep contradictions and posed nagging dilemmas. What were the limits of the human body and how might peak exertion be quantified? What would a productivist vision mean vis-à-vis the managerial processing of workers’ protests against being worked too hard? Did workplace democracy really have no reach into the domain of the intensity and duration of the labor process? Against whom would US workers’ performance be measured, and how would these comparative metrics play into international political economy? What were the limits of US productivity, and would there be markets for the exponentially increasing volume of commodities produced in the nation’s factories as featherbedding and other restrictions on output were removed?

In this paper, we cannot treat these questions in depth, although they form the larger frame through which we look at the rise of anti-featherbedding discourse. Among other things, that would require a long view of the politics of skilled workers’ movement for control on the job that would extend from the Gilded Age through the 1970s. Rather, the focus here is much more modest in ambition and narrow in scope: looking at debates about featherbedding in the World War II period and the late 1940s, with an eye to tracking the accelerating convergence upon a common politics of productivism on the part of most of the players on the national labor scene. As productivism became a common creed, those few holdouts who remained defenders of featherbedding, such as James C. Petrillo, head of the American Federation of Musicians, and some segments of the building trades and railroad unions, came to increasingly be seen as atavistic relics and eccentric tilters against windmills. Above all, they seemed morally suspect—whether as “racketeers” seeking to maintain feudal control of criminal fiefdoms, or as “job trust” gatekeepers whose real agenda was the preservation of certain kinds of work against the incursions of African American and immigrant workers.

As I track the rise of anti-featherbedding discourse, I attend to the strange bedfellows brought together by the fight against output restriction: late New Deal attorney general Thurman Arnold and anti-labor crusader Westbrook Pegler; legal realists at Harvard and Yale and the National Association of Manufacturers; Taft and Hartley and liberal industrial relations scholars like Sumner Slichter and Bernard Selekman. To identify their common ground in advocating a politics of productivism is not meant, of course, to paper over or ignore the many substantial differences that divided the members of this eclectic group. But it is to insist that such a convergence had a substantial effect on postwar labor politics, as meaningful in its own way as the paradoxes of the five-year contract or the card-check.

The triumph of productivism took an enormous swath of workers’ concerns off the bargaining table, strengthened a certain brand of chauvinistic nationalism rooted in the comparison of GDP, ramified workers’ investments in a Puritan work ethic and strengthened the racially loaded division of the working class into the categories of “productive” and “lazy,” and superficially aligned workers’ and manufacturers’ interests in a manner that made a critique of capitalism difficult and proved deeply corrosive of a meaningful working class politics. To properly understand what happened to US labor politics after World War II, then, it is vital to come to terms with the contradictory and deeply ironic history of the fight over featherbedding.

***

Despite the force of the moral charge against featherbedding, however, Hartley lamented that the committee that drafted Taft-Hartley had been unable to ban featherbedding to his satisfaction. While a provision that made it an unfair labor practice for a “labor organization or its agents to attempt to get paid for services not performed or not to be performed” remained in the final language of the Act, Hartley had hoped for a more robust indemnification of labor’s efforts to place fetters on productivity (156-57).

“The original provisions of the Hartley bill on this subject were patterned after the anti-Petrillo bill passed by the 79th Congress. They included an adequate definition of featherbedding, which included such practices as employment of stand-by union members in excess of the number needed for any reason, paying twice for the same work, or agreements for the privilege of doing business where such restrictions were designed to limit production of the use of particular labor-saving devices or machinery. The penalties against featherbedding practices were similar to those proposed against monopolistic strikes. First, engaging in featherbedding demands was made an unfair labor practice; second, strikes to enforce featherbedding demands were declared unfair labor practices and made subject to antitrust prosecutions. The new rights for workers, the ban against mass picketing and violence, the anti-featherbedding and the anti-monopoly provisions for unions constitute the most significant portions of the original Hartley bill discarded in conference” (157)

While featherbedding practices, if sufficiently widespread, would be covered by “restraint of trade” provisions in the bill, Hartley still felt that “these practices should be the subject of specialized legislation”  (176). If the sole purpose of featherbedding was “an attempt to save the job of a union man beyond the point which can be economically justified,” and if featherbedding generated more  employer resistance to unions than from any other single factor, as Hartley alleged, then the law ought to isolate it as a particularly dangerous evil (182). Without anti-featherbedding legislation, businesses would continue to be forced to “hire more men than are needed” and to be discouraged from “installing more efficient equipment when it is available.” The very fate of capitalist competition rested in the balance: “No business can successfully meet its competition unless it is free to compete” (183).

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