The fear behind featherbedding

Even unions admit paying men not to work is wasteful and corrupting. But if no better way is found to defend skilled men against new machines, the rail firemen’s strike was only the first shot in a hopeless war

BLAIR FRASER June 21 1958

The fear behind featherbedding

Even unions admit paying men not to work is wasteful and corrupting. But if no better way is found to defend skilled men against new machines, the rail firemen’s strike was only the first shot in a hopeless war

BLAIR FRASER June 21 1958

The fear behind featherbedding

Even unions admit paying men not to work is wasteful and corrupting. But if no better way is found to defend skilled men against new machines, the rail firemen’s strike was only the first shot in a hopeless war


A month ago when an old dispute between the railways and their locomotive firemen ended in a strike, many Canadians whose sympathies normally lie with labor felt puzzled and exasperated. The question at the root of this strike seemed, on the face of it, absurd: Why was the international firemen's union willing (even though unable) to tie up the Canadian Pacific Railway, put thousands of fellow-railwaymen out of work, and half-paralyze a whole nation, all to keep fewer than a hundred junior firemen employed?

The fear behind featherbedding

Even unions admit paying men not to work is wasteful and corrupting. But if no better way is found to defend skilled men against new machines, the rail firemen’s strike was only the first shot in a hopeless war


month ago when an old dispute between the railways and their locomotive firemen ended in a strike, many Canadians whose sympathies normally lie with labor felt puzzled and exasperated. The question at the root of this strike seemed, on the face of it, absurd: Why was the international firemen's union willing (even though unable) to tie up the Canadian Pacific Railway, put thousands of fellow-railwaymen out of work, and half-paralyze a whole nation, all to keep fewer than a hundred junior firemen employed?

Even labor spokesmen thought the firemen’s case was weak, and in private they frankly said so. Three judges had found that on the diesel locomotives in dispute, a fireman's majorduties have totally disappeared and the minor ones are being performed by other people. The union was demanding nothing less than, perpctual employment, at wages that average S4.H60 a year, in a job that has ceased to exist.

The demand is not unique or even unusual. The CPR wrangle was the latest in a long series between labor and management, most of which up to now have been settled on labor’s terms. They are often cited by employers as evidence of the selfish wrongheadedness of “union bosses." and many indeed do sound like parodies of Alice in Wonderland.

To the Ontario Legislature's labor-relations committee, the Canadian Construction Association gave some examples from the building trade:

An insulating contractor undertook to install cork sheeting in the walls of a new building, using his regular staff. Carpenters and bricklayers both claimed this operation was an invasion of their territory, though in fact neither was needed for the job. To avoid a strike the contractor hired one of each. His regular crew handed each cork sheet to the carpenter, stood and waited while he cut it to size, then put a layer of adhesive on it. handed it to the bricklayer and waited while he pressed it into place.

This compromise, however imbecile it may seem, was moderate and sensible as jurisdictional disputes go. When the Imperial Oil building was going up in Toronto, the contractor installed a work elevator to carry men and materials to the upper floors. The operating engineers' union claimed the right to run it as a passenger lift. The elevator constructors' union said no. it was a freight elevator and therefore their territory. The contractor offered to hire two operators, one from each union, but neither would agree to that. Result: five hundred-odd men climbed stairs and ladders for nine months, right beside an elevator.

Every newspaper in Canada gets some advertisements in the form of matrices or molds, from which the ad can be cast directly without any setting of type. In union shops the type must be set anyway, for all local advertising. By what is known as the "bogus clause" in the contract, the typographical union stipulates that every local ad must be set up in the paper’s own composing room, even if the type is then dumped hack for remelting and never used. The cost of this waste motion across Canada is anyone's guess, but on one middlesized afternoon paper it takes the work of one man for about three months in each year.

Some years ago a small Canadian revue went on tour. Its sole accompaniment was a twopiano team that traveled with the show. Whenever the troupe played in a union theatre, though, it was obliged to hire an orchestrafive to seven players, depending on the local contract. The orchestras never had to play, for the two pianos still provided all the instrumental music, but they had to be paid at union rates. The extra expense often made the difference between losing money and breaking even.

These are examples of "featherbedding," an aspect of trade unionism that few labor leaders try to defend. It is by no means new, and it is most often practiced by the oldest and most conservative craft unions. But lately it has grown more common, continued on page 63



Featherbedding is a loose term which means, generally, that men are being paid for doing nothing, or for doing useless work, or for working below the capacity of their skills. The unions shown below have all been criticized for various featherbedding practices.

The fear behind featherbedding

Continued from page 19

and is likely to become commoner yet. for this is one response to the challenge of automation. As more and more jobs are made obsolete by the encroaching machine, we may expect more demands that men be paid for doing no work.

For the labor movement this creates a new problem in public relations. The men affected are not underpaid or underprivileged. They are the aristocrats of labor, accustomed to high wages and job security. The employers most likely to be involved are the very ones who have the longest records of good labor relations, the pioneers of union recognition and of labor-management co-operation. Ironically, one cause of their trouble is a long tradition of negotiation and compromise, and a set of work rules so ancient and time-honored that the working conditions for which they were devised are now obsolete. Of all these things, the prime example in Canada is the railway industry.

The crew of a Canadian locomotive still reckons a hundred miles as a day's work. The figure was agreed upon at a time when twelve and a half miles an hour was still a good all-day average for railway trains, and a hundred miles therefore equaled an eight-hour day. There are still some way-freights that average no higher speed than that, but a modern passenger train or fast freight covers a hundred miles in less than two hours. It’s still a day’s work, though.

This leads to some curious effects. The Canadian, the CPR’s crack train across the continent, goes from Montreal to Vancouver in about seventy hours. The trip requires twenty-two engine crews, who relieve each other at points that average 131 miles apart. The average time required for each engine crew to complete its day’s work is three hours and sixteen minutes. The crew with the shortest trip, the hundred and ten miles between Moose Jaw and Swift Current, finishes in seven minutes less than two hours. Longest day for an engine crew on the Canadian is four hours, twentyfive minutes.

Of course this is not the whole story. The crew at the end of its three-hour day is more than a hundred miles from home, and must stand by to take another train back, sometimes on the same day but not always. To pay the men on an hourly rate for the time actually spent in the cab of the locomotive would be obviously unfair-^-though it used to be done, not so long ago.

"I can remember a time.” said one railway executive, “when a dispatcher who thought the weather looked a bit ominous might call out two or three crews to take snowploughs up the line. He might send a crew from Montreal to Cornwall, say. just to have a plough there in case of a blizzard.

“That crew would be paid for one run. Once they got to Cornwall they'd draw no more pay—not even a food allowance. They'd live in a work car. but they had to buy their own groceries. They might stay there four or five days,

“No wonder men object to being laid off merely because they.Ve no longer doing any useful work”

until the dispatcher finally decided the danger of a blizzard was over. Then they’d bring the plough back to Montreal, and draw pay for another run. Two clays' pay altogether, and they'd have been away from home buying their own grub for the better part of a week.”

It was to correct such manifest abuses that the present rules of work were negotiated. Now it often looks as if the shoe is on the other foot. The engine crew that takes the Montreal-Toronto liier out westbound in the afternoon gets off at Brockvillc. 150-odd miles up the line, in time to bring the Toronto-Montreal train back again. The return trip takes approximately eight hours of work, and the crew is entitled to he paid for three hundred miles or three "days."

Nobody thinks of them as actual days, of course—the equation of miles and hours is wholly artificial, a mere unit of calculation. Bay rates are negotiated on the basis of cents per mile. Nevertheless it is true that if the same engineer and fireman were allowed the Montreal-Brockville run five days a week, they would earn a very handsome income.

They are not allowed to do this because the union forbids it. Engineers and firemen may not exceed 4,800 miles a month in passenger service. On ordinary runs each crew can cover this mileage in twelve to sixteen working days. This three-to-four-day week enables the engineers on passenger trains to earn an average of $7,144 a year, and the passenger firemen $5,164 (freight and yard firemen earn a little less).

One railway assignment in western Canada employs two crews. Each works for fifteen days straight, then takes fifteen days off. The working day is about seven hours, or a little over a hundred hours a month. Eor this each engineer gets $564. the fireman $531. the conductor $474 and two trainmen $412 apiece.

This job used to be done by one crew. The conductor got $948 for a 210-hour month, and the rest accordingly. The run became known as “the mortgage lifter.” The unions were upset that a favored few could earn so much at regular rates of pay. so at their request the company split the job in half and hired two crews. The actual cost to the railway, of course, remains the same.

These outlandish eases are not typical —the ordinary crew works longer for less money. But they are dramatic illustrations of something that is typical, a certain distortion of the relationship between work performed and pay received.

In the days of steam, firemen got extra pay for the extra work they did on the steep grades of the Rockies and the Selkirks. It took a lot more shoveling to keep steam up there, and besides the trains were slower and took longer to complete a hundred-mile "day.” Today, diesels arc fed automatically and they go as fast through the mountains as the average speed in many a fiat region, hut the firemen have still collected this “mountain differential." The suggestion that it be dropped was one of the firemen’s grievances.

Years ago, every change of crew meant a change of locomotive. Each crew before setting out had to spend some time checking the engine to see that everything worked, and also giving it a "final inspection” at the end of the run. The time spent on these duties varied from man to man, but the wage scales set “arbitrary" times of fifteen to fortyfive minutes for each task. Nowadays, of course, the locomotive is not changed with the crew and the "checking" and "inspection" are purely nominal, but the "arbitrarios" were still payable up to the time of the CPR strike. Men draw wages for “checking" a locomotive that hasn't yet arrived, and for "inspecting” it after it has pulled out and left them behind. The railways' desire to discontinue these “arbitrary" payments was another grievance of the running-trades' unions.

In an industry with such habits and traditions, no wonder men object to being laid off merely because they're no longer doing any useful work. But however preposterous their claims may appear on the surface, there is a real and understandable human fear underneath.

Much more is at stake than the employment of a hundred men. all hired since the dispute over diesels began. So far, Canadian railways have converted only a little more than half of all freight and yard operations to diesel power. Thu:, there are still jobs, at their own trade, for a big fraction of all locomotive firemen. In a few years' time this will no longer be so. All locomotives

will be diesels, and almost all firemen will be out of the jobs they are trying to protect. The only firemen left on diesels will be the few in passenger service, less than a fifth of the whole. Here they’ll stay on the job because a passenger train has only two men in the locomotive. Freight trains have had three: the head-end trainman also rides in the cab, and duplicates the fireman’s task of watching from the left-hand window and helping the engineer if necessary. Neither railway has any present intention of using one-man engine crews in road service.

Even on freight trains the impact of change has been softened by the CPR strike settlement. Men who have been firemen will remain such, and continue to perform their admittedly useless functions, until they are retired or promoted to be engineers—but none will be replaced. In a few years, therefore, firemen will have disappeared from all freight and yard locomotives.

The terms of the CPR settlement also eluded another difficulty, even more serious in the problem of automation in general: What is to become of the senior worker whose craft is no longer required? The company may be willing and even anxious to employ these men at other jobs, but in most cases these other jobs are covered by agreements with other unions. Will such unions recognize the seniority of a man in a different craft?

The unions said no

In the railways’ maintenance and repair shops this question has already been answered, and a very dusty answer it has got: “Every craft for itself. If your

craft is not needed, that’s your hard luck. Our union must look after its own.”

Many boilermakers were left without jobs by the railways’ change to diesels, since a diesel has no boiler—indeed, far more men were thus displaced than the firemen whose plight has had more publicity. Some were elderly workers who had been in the railways’ employ all their lives, and are now near pension age. The railways tried to keep such veterans employed on other jobs, for which they were fully competent but which were covered by agreements with different unions.

In most of these cases the union's answer was no. “Seniority” applied to union members only; no matter how long a man might have worked with the railway, he remained “junior” to the newest member of a union not his own. This is the reason for the incidents that call for indignant questions in parliament from time to time—older workers laid off while men with half their seniority are still working.

But here, too, the union’s attitude is not as blindly cruel as it looks. Canadian railway labor is all organized on a craft basis—the CNR has 201 agreements with thirty-nine unions. Some of these contracts cover thousands of workers, but one covers exactly five barbers in the Chateau Laurier at Ottawa. Many of the unions affected are among the oldest and best-established in the whole labor movement, and now they are fighting for survival.

The firemen’s union is one such. It is almost a century old. In addition to the ordinary services of collective bargaining it operates a huge insurance and pension scheme for its members. Since 1873 the union has paid out no less than $120 million in insurance claims; in a single month recently it paid out $193,000 in death claims and $126,000

in endowments. If the firemen’s union should cease to exist, what will become of all these assets and vested interests?

Even before the railways decided to operate diesels without firemen in freight and yard service, the future of the firemen’s union was dark enough. Already, firemen reckon they have lost as many as a thousand "job opportunities” because of the greater power and flexibility of the diesel engine. In the mountain region of western Canada each train used to need helper engines on the steep grades, sometimes as many as

three extra locomotives, each with its own crew. Now, on the same stretches of line, the railways merely add a few more diesel units and take the train on with one engine crew instead of four.

Looking further into the future, railwaymen see more and more such surrenders to the machine—and not for firemen alone. Even now, on the market in the United States there is a small switching engine for use in certain types of railway yard service. This engine needs no crew at all—no fireman, no engineer. It is operated from the cen-

tral control tower, by the same pushbutton method that operates a toy electric train. There is. no technical reason why all railway ■ yards should not be run by similarly automatic means.

Road operation is becoming more nearly automatic, too. Not many years ago, rail switches were set and signals adjusted by hand. Now, an operator in Toronto simultaneously controls every signal and every switch over some two hundred miles of line. This system of centralized traffic control will probably be installed on all main lines by 1961.

The next step would be automatic train control—•;> system whereby any locomotive that moves against a signal, goes through a red light or otherwise breaks the rules, would be automatically brought to a stop. This system costs about thirty thousand dollars a mile and is therefore only worthwhile where traffic is fairly dense, but it is already in operation in many parts of Europe. With automatic train control a locomotive still needs a driver, but the driver needs very little skill. He can be trained quickly, and paid accordingly. Not only in the railway industry but in all labor disputes of the same kind, this is the real fear that underlies the seemingly arrogant demands—a man’s fear of losing his trade, his hard-won skill, and of finding himself with no hope of employment except as a simple laborer. What will become of the carpenter when every piece of lumber going into a house is pre-cut to size at the factory, and numbered so that it can be assembled like a nursery toy? What will become of the plasterer and the bricklayer when every wall is a prefabricated section and any oaf can bolt it into place? And even if all are employed at reasonable pay, but without discrimination as to function and skill, what will become of their great and ancient apparatus of trade unions, with their hundreds of comfortable full-time jobs and their millions of dollars in pension and welfare funds? Nobody knows. That’s why carpenters are insisting, and their union officials even more stridently demanding, that every job calling for a hammer and saw must be filled by a qualified duespaying carpenter and not by a common laborer. That’s why the musicians try to exact that when Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is played, the artillerymen who fire the cannon should be members of the musicians’ union—or else have a battery of drummers or trombone players "standing by" at full pay. Trade-union people are uncomfortably aware that they have not looked their best in this argument up to now. Last February a conference of officials in the building trades (held, by the way, at Miami Beach, Florida) drew up a ten-point code of conduct for union members, condemning "slowdowns, forcing of overtime, spread-work tactics, standby crews and featherbedding practices." No steps were suggested for enforcing the code, though. Obviously it will take more than pious lip service to break the chronic deadlock between the craftsman and the machine. It will also take more than apoplectic bluster against “union bosses.” Somebody—labor, or management, or government, or all three—will have to devise some general principles that all can accept. These will have to make more sense than the principle of featherbedding — carry that to its logical conclusion, and the automobile companies would all have harness-making departments for their horseless carriages. But the new principles cannot be too coldly rational, either. If every skill becomes worthless the moment it is technically obsolete, there isn’t much incentive to acquire skills at all. If every man's work is to be judged by the standard of the eagerest beaver, no job would be much fun any more. There must be a happy medium. Management, labor and government had better hurry up and try to find it. Otherwise, the firemen’s strike was only the first engagement in a long dreary war that nobody can win. if