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What Is Featherbedding?

Featherbedding is a very old term that applies to labor union work practices that unfairly burden an employer to alter a workforce to meet union policies, which results in loss of profits.

Also known as overmanning in the United Kingdom, featherbedding is defined by the British Dictionary as the practice of limiting work production, unnecessarily duplicating work, or overmanning, particularly in compliance with a union contract, to prevent unemployment or to create new jobs. By increasing the demand for workers, featherbedding is also attributed to keeping wages inflated.

The practice is attributed to requiring employers to pay for the performance of what they consider to be pointless work, for work that is not actually performed, or for employees who are not required or needed. The situation generally results from a union contract with an employer.

Featherbedding is the practice of hiring more workers than are needed to perform a given job, or to adopt work procedures which appear pointless, complex and time-consuming merely to employ additional workers. The term "make-work" is sometimes used as a synonym for featherbedding. The term "featherbedding" is usually used by management to describe behaviors and rules sought by workers. The term may equally apply to mid- and upper-level management, particularly in regard to top-heavy and "bloated" levels of middle- and upper-level management. Featherbedding has also been occasionally used to describe rent-seeking behavior by corporations in response to economic regulation.

Featherbedding is the practice that requires an employer to hire more employees than needed or paying more to the employees for the work, the employee considers unnecessary work or for work which is actually not performed. The occurrence of featherbedding in any particular instance is usually disputed and is subject to what is considered reasonable. Work rules requiring large work crews or which limit the amount of work an employee can do in a specific time period may be considered featherbedding.

Featherbedding only arises under certain circumstances. Principal among these is that the employer has an exploitable excess (e.g., profit) to support the practice. Featherbedding also emerges where market forces fail and organizations are allowed to be non-competitive. Under this analysis, businesses which are already inefficient and featherbedding has no effect on the production. Featherbedding can, in some conditions, take surplus resources (profits) away from the employer and distribute them to workers in the way of more income per worker or more numbers of employees at a similar income level. Featherbedding is considered economically effective because it happens in the reciprocity (give and take) of collective bargaining.

For example, a labor union notifies an employer that it has to hire ten people and that if it hires only seven, it must pay for the additional three employees anyway.

BREAKING DOWN Featherbedding

Featherbedding is a colloquial term used to describe the practice of a labor union requiring an employer to increase labor cost to a degree greater than necessary for a particular task. This often takes the form of requiring employers to hire more workers than necessary, although it can also refer to adding time-consuming, make-work policies and procedures that increase labor costs, as well as adopting practices that slow productivity.

Featherbedding also occurs when employees who are no longer needed are required to be retained by the union, or when unions demand that employers hire workers who are overqualified for a particular position.

Because featherbedding is often portrayed in a negative light, unions typically deny the existence of the practice, but some economists claim the practice can help redistribute surplus profits from organizations to employees who would otherwise be unemployed.

Detractors claim that featherbedding promotes outdated and inefficient practices and policies, especially those made obsolete by technological efficiencies.

Historical Development

As an organized movement, trade unionism (also called organized labor) originated in the 19th century in Great Britain, continental Europe, and the United States. In many countries, trade unionism is synonymous with the term labor movement.

Small associations of workers started appearing in Britain in the 18th century. But they remained sporadic and short-lived through most of the 19th century, in part because of the hostility they encountered from employers and government groups that resented this new form of political and economic activism. At that time unions and unionists were regularly prosecuted under various restraint-of-trade and conspiracy statutes in both Britain and the United States.

While union organizers in both countries faced similar obstacles, their approaches evolved quite differently. The British movement favored political activism, which led to the formation of the Labour Party in 1906, while American unions pursued collective bargaining as a means of winning economic gains for their workers.

Modern Developments

During the 20th century, craft unions lost ground to industrial unions. This shift was both historic and controversial because the earliest unions had developed in order to represent skilled workers.

These groups believed that unskilled workers were unsuitable for union organization. In 1935, for example, the AFL opposed attempts to organize the unskilled and ultimately expelled a small group of member unions that were attempting to do so.

The expelled unions formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which by 1941 had assured the success of industrial unionism by organizing the steel and automobile industries. When the AFL and the CIO merged to form the AFL-CIO in 1955, they represented between them some 15 million workers.

At the same time, mass unions began appearing in Britain and several European countries, and before the end of the century the industrial unions, embracing large numbers of unskilled or semiskilled workers, were recognized as powerful negotiating forces.

International perspectives


In Brazil, featherbedding is considered endemic in government-owned and private-sector industries. Some analysts argue that featherbedding is a reaction to economic insecurity, and helps stabilize the national economy by spreading wealth.


In France, featherbedding was encouraged by the nationalized rail transportation system after World War Two with a view to keeping down the unemployment rate. This was in addition to railway express rates being kept very low. The railroad ran at a huge deficit as a result.


In post-war Japan, featherbedding is uncommon. A post-war consensus emerged among labor unions that featherbedding was not in the best interest of workers, and unions in Japan have tended to avoid the practice. A heavy government emphasis on full employment and a strong social safety net helped reinforce this consensus.


There are no national, regional, or local statutes or regulations governing labor unions in Sweden. Sweden has no national bureau or agency overseeing or regulating labor relations, and no agency monitors or regulates internal trade union matters. Nevertheless, despite relatively close relationships between employers and unions, featherbedding is almost unknown in Sweden.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, featherbedding is also referred to as "overmanning".

United States

In the U.S., the Taft-Hartley Act defines and outlaws featherbedding.[27] However, as previously noted, the U.S. Supreme Court has narrowly defined featherbedding, leaving most practices undisturbed.

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