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Abbott & Costello’s Vintage Union Bashing

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This week a DVD of The Abbott and Costello Show‘s 1953-54 season was released amid nostalgic fanfare. The old comedy team is mostly remembered today because of its immortal “Who’s on First” baseball routine – an almost Beckettian example of miscommunication that’s been enshrined in Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame. However, the two Jersey boys also enjoy an afterlife in conservative circles through a very similar sketch, “The Loafers Union,” in which straight man Bud Abbott proudly announces to sidekick Lou Costello that he has landed a “loafing” job at a bakery. From this spare description, fans of “Who’s on First” can pretty much guess the kind of linguistic linguine the two former Vaudevillians will make of this double entendre:

Abbott: I got a job at a bakery.

Costello: Good! What’re you doing there?

Abbott: Loafing.

Costello: Loafing?

Abbott: Loafing!

Costello: Where?

Abbott: In a bakery.

Costello: You working?

Abbott: Well, certainly.

Costello: Doing what?

Abbott: Loafing!

Unlike “Who’s on First,” the bakery sketch soon acquires a political edge as the gag about the making of loaves being confused with gold-bricking takes a potshot at the presumed slack work ethic of union members.

Abbott: I work for the baker, I’m loafing there.

Costello: You loaf — you don’t do a thing! How much do they pay you at the baker store?

Abbott: A dollar and a half an hour.

Costello: For loafing.

Abbott: I’m a union man! I belong to the union!

Costello: I’m loafing here, and I don’t get nothing for it!

Abbott: You’re not supposed to get money for that kind of loafing!

Costello: Can I loaf there with you?

Abbott: I should say not; you’ve got to join the union.

Costello: I gotta join a union of loafers?

Abbott: You can’t loaf without belonging to the union.

Costello: Well, what do you think of that? You mean I gotta join a union in order to loaf?

Abbott: Well, certainly!

Costello: Don’t say nothin’ but I was loafing here [without] the union knowin’.

Abbott and Costello were not known for their offstage politics, although Costello’s daughter, Chris Costello, has written that her father was convinced of a Communist plot to dominate Hollywood. (An ardent supporter of Senator Joe McCarthy, Costello insisted that all his employees sign anti-Communist petitions.) The only other union reference that I know to be associated with the comedy duo comes up in the film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where Costello’s baggage handler character seems to be trying to gouge a wax museum owner into paying him more money than he deserves:

Wilbur (Costello): Well, then it’s gonna cost you overtime because I’m a union man and I work only 16 hours a day.

Mr. McDougal: A union man only works eight hours a day.

Wilbur: I belong to two unions!

By 1948 (the time of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein‘s release) union militancy in Hollywood was ebbing and the entertainment blacklist had just begun. “The Loafer’s Union” probably first appeared in the early 1950s, just as membership in the American labor movement was cresting – and around the time that anti-union propaganda began depicting union members as lazy, pampered “loafers.” (Bud Abbott’s $1.50 an hour wage at the bakery was double the minimum wage in 1952.) That loafing trope has persisted to this day as a cornerstone of the American right’s mythology about unions and, really, workers in general – especially in its attack against public-sector employees.

Some oft-quoted figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, tell a far different story. Between 1947 and 1973, the productivity of American workers rose 104 percent; between 1973 and 2013, it rose 108 percent. No one can really hold a grudge against Abbott and Costello for playfully helping to create, so many years ago, the myth of the indolent American worker. We can only wish Bud and Lou the very best in whatever right-to-work heaven they reside in. But when we laugh at their shtick about bakeries, loafing and unions, it is only because we’re aghast at how wrong two guys could be.

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