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Bike couriers want a better ride (April 3, 2004)

In the article below courier companies make it sound like the Canadian rush courier industry's finances won't allow them to do anything to improve conditions for workers but according to Statistics Canada they are doing quite well. In fact Statistics Canada reports that "the courier and local messenger industry is an important, growing contributor to the economy."

While messengers' incomes and delivery prices have declined over the years, the companies have significantly increased their operating margins. Using the most recent data (2001) from Statistics Canada, the same-day couriers' operating margins have increased a whopping 32% between 1998-2001.
 
So delivery rates declined but operating profits increased. How is this possible? It's simple. Volumes increased and more costs were shifted to the workers. Messengers worked much harder for the same or less money while companies benefited from their continued exploitation.

Transportation researcher Gary Breininger describes the rush courier industry as, "pretty much as close as you can get to a purely competitive economic structure." That's because other industries are held to employment standards and the Canadian Labour Code. The courier industry is distinguished by disguised employment, which means employers call employees independent contractors and ignore labour standards to which other industries are forced to adhere.

Disguised employment allows companies to push their costs and risks onto their workers resulting in illegal "prices as low as $2 per delivery." For years messengers across Canada have battled to have the minimum allowable charges under the Canada Post Act enforced. At present the minimum amount a courier can charge is $2.40 per package.

If companies were so concerned about standards "applied formally and evenly for all companies" they could have joined messengers in this battle. Companies say they see the need for "commission improvements for bikers, whom they admit work in difficult conditions," yet despite years of opportunity the opposite is industry practice.

Most messengers receive no vacation pay and they are not paid for statutory holidays. Messengers do not receive overtime pay and they are routinely dismissed without notice. It's not surprising that messengers are not worried that a union might "sour relations between companies and the couriers."

It's possible a union may bring the courier industry from the nineteenth century into the twenty first century.  CUPW helped couriers in Winnipeg win a case in Federal Court that allows them to sue for vacation pay and holiday pay from their employer and recognized their status as employees rather than independent contractors under Part III of the Canada Labour Code. On March 4, 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed Dynamex Canada's appeal of the case (Dynamex Canada Inc. v. Mamona). Without help from the union, it's unlikely the individual messengers would have had the finances to defend their rights all the way to the Supreme Court.

Messengers have tried everything else to persuade companies to treat them fairly. Why not give a union a chance?
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Bike couriers want a better ride

Union would change dynamics of industry.Higher costs could kill smaller firms. Involvement of postal workers' union might sour employee-company relations
 
By Nicolas Van Praet

Montreal Gazette, April 3, 2004

Some bike couriers in Montreal want to join the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Will rebel-image bike couriers wear blue uniforms like posties? That's doubtful.

But Montreal rush-delivery company managers are bracing for profound changes to their business after couriers and independent messengers signalled this week they want to join the Montreal local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, one of Canada's most powerful labour groups.

About 175 messengers who use their own bicycles, cars, vans or trucks to make same-day deliveries have signed accreditation cards for membership.

Joining any union would alter the dynamics of the entire local rush-courier industry because it would almost certainly drive up costs for some companies, experts say. Those costs will either be passed on to consumers, or absorbed by the firms themselves. That could kill off some companies.

"Guys like this, like a union, can absolutely crush my business," said Peter Hansen, a manager at QA Courier, a Montreal rush-delivery company that employs as many as 45 independent delivery contractors.

"What allows us to survive against the big companies is that we are not unionized."

Some businesses will have to close, said Jean-François Sauriol, president of Messagex, one of five courier companies targeted by union organizers.

"Companies that are the least well-organized and that work least well with the messengers will not be able to adapt to these changes."

The involvement of the postal workers' union could alter the game further. Some messenger-company managers charge that the public-sector union has always fought against private courier companies because it perceives them as a threat. Managers hinted that if the couriers join the union, it could sour relations between companies and the couriers.

Bike messengers say unionizing would give them more money, better training, and adequate accident protection. Courier drivers also stand to make similar gains.

Sauriol and other company managers say they're not against those goals, especially commission improvements for bikers, whom they admit work in difficult conditions. But they say they want it to be applied formally and evenly for all companies, not just the five firms targeted by union organizers.

Canada's rush-delivery business is, as transportation researcher Gary Breininger describes it, "pretty much as close as you can get to a purely competitive economic structure."

About 15,000 independent operators working for 2,000 companies duke it out for $700 million worth of business annually at prices as low as $2 per delivery. In Montreal, about 200 firms compete. Some are tiny outfits employing four or five people.

Experts say prices have not changed much over the years. Profits are lousy, at about eight per cent pre-tax, for the sector in general, according to Statistics Canada.

Independent workers make $50,000 a year at the high end, Breininger said.

"One of the reasons why I believe the (sector) is not highly unionized is that, I hate to say it, there's not a lot of money there for a union," Breininger said.

"(They) don't make a lot of money to afford dues and things like that."

Unionization in the courier industry is not unheard of, however. In fact, messengers with Canada's largest rush-delivery company, U.S.-based Dynamex, belong to the Teamsters union.

A union presence doesn't automatically spell disaster, said Jim Aitken, Canadian director for Dynamex. "It's how the company reacts to it."

But to many courier-company managers, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers is no ordinary union.

More on Montreal's labour fight here and here

 


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