Featherbedding is a pejorative term for 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 New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy," 3rd ed., edited by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. ISBN 0618226478] 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.William Gomberg, "Featherbedding: An Assertion of Property Rights," "Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science," 333:1 (1961).] But featherbedding has also been occasionally used to describe rent-seeking behavior by corporations in response to economic regulation. [Jarita Duasa and Paul Mosley, "Capital Controls Re-examined: The Case for 'Smart' Controls," "The World Economy," 29:9 (September 2006).] 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 Brass," "Time," May 14, 1956; C.A. Myers, "Top Management Featherbedding?", "Sloan Management Review," 24:4 (1983).]


The term "featherbedding" originally referred to any person who is pampered, coddled, or excessively rewarded. The term originated in the use of feathers to line mattresses in beds, providing for more comfort. The modern use of the term in the labor relations setting began in the United States railroad industry, which used feathered mattresses in sleeping cars. Railway labor unions, confronted with changing technology which led to widespread unemployment, sought to preserve jobs by negotiating contracts which required employers to pay workers to do little or no work or which required complex and time-consuming work rules so as to generate a full day's work for an employee who otherwise would not remain employed. ["Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law," 1st ed., Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1996. ISBN 0877796041]

Since the mid-1800s, "featherbedding" has been most commonly used in the labor relations field. Increasingly, the term has come to refer only to work rules or collective bargaining agreements demanded by labor unions.Norman J. Simler, "The Economics of Featherbedding," in "Featherbedding and Technological Change," ed. by Paul Weinstein, D.C. Heath and Co., 1965.]

In nations where trade union activities are legally defined, legal definitions of featherbedding exist. These definitions are few in number, and tend to be narrowly drawn. For example, the Taft-Hartley Act in the United States 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. However, in 1953, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Act's definition only applies to payments for workers not to work. Therefore, work rules requiring minimum crew sizes, the assignment of duties to craft workers, and other "make-work" agreements do not constitute featherbedding. ["American Newspaper Publishers Association v. National Labor Relations Board," 345 U.S. 100 (1953).]


Featherbedding is commonly seen by economists as a solution to "who should bear the burden of technological change."Paul A. Weinstein, "The Featherbedding Problem," "American Economic Review," 54:3 (May, 1964).]

Economists often argue that featherbedding is the most economically optimal position from both an employer's and employee's perspective. Featherbedding only emerges under certain circumstances. Chief among these is that the employer has an exploitable surplus (e.g., profit) to support the practice. Featherbedding also arises where market forces fail and organizations are permitted to be noncompetitive. Under this analysis, corporations (for example) are already inefficient and featherbedding does not make them more or less so. Featherbedding can, in some circumstances, take excess resources (profits) away from the employer and give them to workers in the form of more income per worker or higher numbers of employees at the same income level. Featherbedding is considered economically efficient because it occurs in the give-and-take of collective bargaining. If employers were relatively strong vis-a-vis unions, unions would be unable to impose featherbedding on them. As the politico-socio-economic strength of each party changes over time, collective bargaining outcomes will as well, enlarging or reducing the number and impact of featherbedding rules on the employer. [Lloyd Ulman, "The Rise of the National Trade Union," Harvard University Press, 1955; Clarence C. Morrison and Herbert J. Kiesling, "Featherbedding—An Easy Second Best Problem," "Atlantic Economic Journal," 4:3 (September 1976).]

More recent political analyses of featherbedding have concluded that featherbedding is not necessarily economically optimal, but is better than other forms of bargaining. Under this analysis, the best form of collective bargaining would be one in which the union and employer bargain not only over wages but the level of employment. Most unions in the United States, for example, bargain solely over wages. Bargaining over work rules (featherbedding) as well as wages achieves outcomes close to those reached by bargaining solely over wages, but is better than bargaining over wages alone. [George E. Johnson, "Work Rules, Featherbedding, and Pareto-Optimal Union Management Bargaining," "Journal of Labor Economics," 8:1 (Part 2, 1990).]

Non-economic perspectives

Legal scholars and certain social theorists argue that featherbedding may be an expression of the concept of a job as a property right. These analysts argue that while the owner or employer has the "right" to extract profit because of his or her investment of capital, so the worker has the "right" to extract profit because of his or her investment of labor. Featherbedding, it is argued, arises and becomes a significant problem in places where the job property right is not part of the legal regime and remains unprotected (such as the United States). [Donald L. Martin, "Job Property Rights and Job Defections," "Journal of Law and Economics," 15:2 (October 1972); P.J. White, "Unfair Dismissal Legislation and Property Rights: Some Reflections," "Industrial Relations Journal," 16:4 (December 1985); Ellen Dannin, "Why At-Will Employment Is Bad For Employers and Just Cause Is Good For Them," "Labor Law Journal," 58:5 (2007).]

Seizing on economists' emphasis on power in the workplace, other social theorists conclude that featherbedding is a result of weak labor unions and unenforced and unprotected worker rights. Under this analysis, featherbedding is a response by unions to their weakness, not strength.:The literature is replete with "featherbedding" or "restrictive" rules that are hard to justify. Yet, before using these examples to condemn work rules as such, one has to be clear as to what the reasons are behind the restrictions. Why, for example, have unions resorted to job control devices, such as rules of demarcation and jurisdiction or seniority rules that sometimes conflict with flexibility? Frequently one finds that these rules originate in serious problems of employment insecurity or grave deficiencies in the security or recognition of trade unions. [Werner Sengenberger, "The Role of Labour Standards in Industrial Restructuring: Participation, Protection and Promotion," International Institute for Labour Studies, International Labour Organization, 1990. ISBN 9290144823] Improved workplace employment rights, improved economic policies and less antagonistic labor-management relations, it is argued, would reduce featherbedding.

Others see certain kinds of featherbedding as a corrective for market failures. For example, the delivery of social services is often not quantifiable except in the extreme. When the market is unable to quantify a good or service, the market will fail to accurately price it. Market failure results. In complex organizations, or in those whose inputs and outputs are difficult to quantify, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what constitutes featherbedding. [Charles Perrow, "Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay," Scott, Foresman & Co., 1979. ISBN 0673152057] For example, defining "quality health care" is problematic, [Evert Reerink, "Defining Quality of Care: Mission Impossible?", "International Journal for Quality in Health Care," 2 (1990); Rick L. Nevers, "Defining Quality Is Difficult, But Necessary," "Healthcare Financial Management," February 1993; Philip Caper, "Defining Quality in Medical Care," "Health Affairs," Spring 1988.] as is defining a "quality education." [Hans F. Crombag, "On Defining Quality of Education," "Journal Higher Education," 7:4 (November 1978); Alisa Belzer, ed., "Toward Defining and Improving Quality in Adult Basic Education: Issues and Challenges," 1st ed., Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007. ISBN 0805855459; Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, Daniel M. O'Brien, and Steven G. Rivkin, "The Market for Teacher Quality," NBER Working Paper No. 11154, National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2005; Dan Goldhaber and Emily Anthony, "Can Teacher Quality be Effectively Assessed?", The Urban Institute, April 2004; Jeannie Oakes, Megan Loef Franke, Karen Hunter Quartz, and John Rogers, "Research for High-Quality Urban Teaching: Defining It, Developing It, Assessing It," "Journal of Teacher Education," 53:3 (2002).] In such situations, frontline professional workers place heavy emphasis on work rules and minimums. Many white-collar professionals (in particular those such as nurses and teachers) and highly skilled craft workers place heavy emphasis on staffing minimums, for example, as a means of ensuring a "high quality" outcome. ["Nurses and hospitals are increasingly agreeing that various departments have a minimum number of nurses, and teachers' contracts are specifying maximum class sizes, in effect guaranteeing that school districts have a minimum number of teachers for the student population." Steven Greenhouse, "Big Audience Guaranteed For This Labor Dispute," "New York Times," March 9, 2003.] While some argue that this is an exercise in the professional judgment of such workers, [Virginia Cleland, "The Professional Model," "American Journal of Nursing," 75:2 (February 1975); David Lewin and Bruce Kaufman, eds., "New Research on Labor Relations and the Performance of University HR/IR Programs," 1st ed., JAI Press, 2000. ISBN 0762307501] others call this featherbedding and point to the low level of evidence that such rules improve outcomes. [Jess B. Weiss, "Perspectives: An Anesthesiologist," "Health Affairs," Fall 1988.]

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. [M. Delal Baer, "Profiles in Transition in Latin America and the Caribbean," "Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science," 526 (March 1993); William F. Maloney, "Informality Revisited," "World Development," 32:7 (July 2004).]


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. [Thomas J. DiLorenzo, "Japanese Labor Relations: Are There Lessons for the U.S.?", "Journal Journal of Labor Research," 11:3 (September, 1990).]


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, nor does any agency monitor or regulate internal trade union matters. Nevertheless, despite relatively close relationships between employers and unions, featherbedding is almost unknown in Sweden. [Reinhold Fahlbeck, "Trade Unionism in Sweden," International Institute for Labour Studies, International Labour Organization, 1999. ISBN 9290146176]

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, featherbedding is also referred to as "overmanning." [George E. Johnson, "Work Rules, Featherbedding, and Pareto-Optimal Union-Management Bargaining," "Journal of Labor Economics," 8:1 (Part 2; January 1990).]

United States

In the U.S., the Taft-Hartley Act defines and outlaws featherbedding. ["Featherbedding and Taft-Hartley," "Columbia Law Review," 52:8 (December 1952).] However, as previously noted, the U.S. Supreme Court has narrowly defined featherbedding, leaving most practices undisturbed.


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  • featherbedding — feath·er·bed·ding / fe t̲h̲ər ˌbe diŋ/ n [from the notion of making oneself comfortable through the receipt of excessive or unjustified compensation for little or no work]: the unfair labor practice of causing an employer to pay for services… …   Law dictionary

  • featherbedding — ☆ featherbedding [feth′ərbed΄iŋ ] n. the practice of limiting output or requiring extra workers, as by union contract, in order to provide more jobs and prevent unemployment …   English World dictionary

  • featherbedding — /fedh euhr bed ing/, n. the practice of requiring an employer to hire unnecessary employees, to assign unnecessary work, or to limit production according to a union rule or safety statute: Featherbedding forced the railroads to employ firemen on… …   Universalium

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  • featherbedding —  The practice of retaining unnecessary union jobs.  ► “In addition, Britain, long the home of rigid unionism, is now more flexible than the US when it comes to eliminating union featherbedding.” (Forbes, March 28, 1994, p. 74) …   American business jargon

  • featherbedding — noun the practice (usually by a labor union) of requiring an employer to hire more workers than are required • Hypernyms: ↑practice, ↑pattern * * * | ̷ ̷ ̷ ̷| ̷ ̷ ̷ ̷ noun Etymology: from gerund of featherbed (II) …   Useful english dictionary

  • featherbedding — noun Date: 1921 the requiring of an employer usually under a union rule or safety statute to hire more employees than are needed or to limit production …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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