Featherbedding in L.A.—a reimagined classic


Author: Timothy Sandefur

“Featherbedding” is an old union trick, whereby the union forces the employer to hire people who just sit around and do nothing. If the employer has a job that requires two workers, the union requires the employer to hire five. In one famous case in the 1980s, railroad unions forced railroads to hire a fireman for each diesel locomotive!

Such tactics are certainly good for the union members who benefit from getting paid for no work, but they make products and services more expensive for consumers, stifle economic innovation, and probably worst of all, make it harder for new workers to find jobs—because the employers are spending the money on unnecessary employees instead. (Federal law makes featherbedding illegal, but not if the employer “agrees” to “hire” the extra workers to perform some unnecessary task, which means that in practice, the prohibition is ineffective.)

But Los Angeles, the land of the reimagined classic, has come up with a new idea. They’re forcing featherbedding, not on union employers, but on non-union employers. In a market where most American workers choose not to join unions, and where consumers have shown their overwhelming preference for less expensive, non-union stores like Wal-Mart, labor unions and their allies are seeking ways to increase the cost of doing business for non-union companies, hoping to force these companies to do business with unions. You may remember the case in Berkeley a few years ago, when the city passed a law forcing only a single employer in the entire city—the only non-unionized restaurant—to pay an inflated “living wage” to its employees. (PLF filed a brief in that case, but the court ruled for the city.)

The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy is an advocacy group for union interests, funded by lefties and largely staffed by members of various labor unions. It’s leading an anti-Wal-Mart campaign designed to force the poor of Los Angeles to pay more for their groceries. To that end, the city of L.A. passed an ordinance that says that if a grocery store gets bought out by another grocery store, the new store cannot terminate any of the employees for three months—even if they’re redundant, even if their continued employment just ends up costing shoppers more money.

The City claimed at the time that this was a “health and safety” law, designed to ensure that people handling foodstuffs know how to do so safely. But the law actually does not provide protection to management employees—that is, the people who are in a position to teach others how to handle food safely—and it does apply to janitors and such. So now that the law’s been challenged in court, the City’s changed its tune, and claims the law is a “job security” law. Well, it certainly is that. And job security is a bad idea for Los Angeles’ working families.

But, of course, the law does not apply to stores that have a collective bargaining agreement with a union—because it isn’t really meant to protect workers. It’s meant to protect unions against companies that have found ways to do their jobs faster, better, cheaper—and, incidentally, to treat workers quite well.

The case is now in the California Supreme Court, where Pacific Legal Foundation filed this brief last week.