[messengers] Unionizing the Wild West of Toronto bike couriers

Date: 1 Jun 2011 15:03:39 +0200
From: Joe Hendry <messvilleto@xxxxxxxxx>


 
Walkom: Unionizing the Wild West of bike couriers
 
Toronto Star, June 1, 2011
 
By Thomas Walkom
 
In a small storefront in downtown Toronto, at a time when unions are under attack as both venal and irrelevant, something unusual is happening.
 
A union is being organized.
 
And not just any union. What’s going on here is an attempt to organize bike couriers, a group of workers notorious for their up-yours attitude.
 
“It is a bit like herding seagulls,” chuckles one man involved in the effort.
 
“The Wild West,” says another.
 
If a union of bike couriers sounds odd, it shouldn’t. They and others engaged in the so-called same-day delivery industry represent the new world of work.
 
They get no vacation pay, no benefits, no overtime. They’re part of a cutthroat industry where low wages are the norm. They can be fired on a whim.
 
Their employers usually charge them for the cellphones or radios they need to keep in touch with dispatchers. Those who deliver packages by car usually pay for their own gas.
 
Those who deliver on foot — known in the trade as walkers — had better trot if they want to keep their jobs.
 
Some of the bigger delivery companies have been successfully organized by unions like the Teamsters, Canadian Auto Workers and Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
 
But couriers working for small-scale delivery firms tend to be ignored. Like many in the new world of work, same-day couriers are usually treated as self-employed contractors — a category that conveniently exempts them from those few requirements employers owe their employees.
 
Now CUPW, the postal workers union, is successfully challenging that cozy arrangement.
 
What drew the postal union to couriers was logic. In effect, private couriers do the same job as post office mail carriers. Both deliver parcels and letters.
 
As well, companies that employ private couriers are regulated under the federal Canada Post Corporation Act.
 
Even more important, the Canada Industrial Labour Relations Board, which oversees workers under federal jurisdiction, doesn’t fall easily for the old wheeze — too often accepted by provincial regulators — that couriers are self-employed business people.
 
It treats them instead as dependent contractors — workers who, even though they are paid by commission, have virtually no control over their jobs.
 
So far, the union has won the right to represent about 50 couriers in three small Toronto companies. It’s not been easy. One firm is mounting a court challenge. None has yet agreed to begin the bargaining that would lead to a contract.
 
And there is a long way to go. The union figures there are 156 same-day delivery companies operating in Toronto. In total, they employ roughly 150 bike couriers, 150 walkers and 2,500 who deliver by car.
 
On one grey evening, five couriers gather to tell me their stories. Most don’t want their names made public. In the Wild West, it doesn’t always pay to stick out.
 
One willing to have his name used is Kevin Barnhorst, who, by own admission, is “a pretty good” bike courier. Being pretty good allows him to gross between $130 and $150 for a 10-hour day. Most same-day couriers get considerably less. Some gross just $6 an hour.
 
Unions — particularly public-sector unions like CUPW — may be out of favour with the glitterati. But Barnhorst thinks they’re crucial.
 
“We can be fired on a whim,” he explains. “We’re at the whim of our dispatchers … Some of us are paid less than the minimum wage.”
 
Besides, there is a much more intangible reason, one that has to do with power and respect.
 
“The union,” Barnhorst says, “will let us talk to the company — in a way that they’ll listen to us.”
 



 
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