In Booth Tarkingtons 1916 novel Seventeen, a little girl gets admonished for using damn when she quotes a neighbor. Brightening, she substitutes word for the forbidden expression: He talked like this, mama: he said Ill be word if I can stand it! An he kept getting crosser, an he said, Word! Word! WORD!
Hard as it is to believe, such niceties persist today. Take the term featherbedding, a pejorative that Websters defines as the requiring of an employer usually under a union rule . . . to hire more employees than are needed. The current strike by Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employeesstagehandsis about just such a practice.
When the members of Local One walked off their jobs, Broadway essentially went dark. The League of American Theaters and Producers refused to buckle, presenting its side to the public on the local TV station New York One. Richard Frankel, general manager of Young Frankenstein, spoke for his colleagues: There are several ways that the featherbedding manifests itself. We cannot hire the number of men we [producers] need, we have to hire the number of men [the union tells] us to hire.
Local One president James J. Claffey, Jr. responded furiously. As the producers continue to say featherbedding and they keep [saying] basically that were thieves, he thundered, were not going back to the table with that lack of respect. We cant negotiate under those circumstances.
Mayor Bloombergs offers to mediate were welcomed by the league but spurned by the union. Now only one course remains. This disagreement is evidently not a matter of money, its a matter of language. Ergo, producers should henceforth cease to use featherbed, featherbedded, or featherbedding in public statements. They might say instead that Local One ought to end its policy of wording. They could point out that shows have had to word since Tarkingtons era, using employees who do exactly nothing for their wageswages that add up to a six-figure annual salary for many union members.
With malice aforethought, the union timed the stoppage to hit during the weeks before Christmas, when the city attracts legions of tourists with disposable income. Accordingly, the strike didnt just affect theaters. Since it began three weeks ago, restaurant and hotel workers have seen their own incomes and tips plunge. Ironically, years ago their unions agreed not to word, and none is the worse for it. Only Broadway persists in this archaic practice. Its well past time to get the word out.
Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author of a dozen books, most recently The Voodoo That They Did So Well, a collection of City Journal essays about the Gotham stage.