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Solidarity Forever?

Globe and Mail, September 17, 2005

By Peter Cheney

See what it's like to be a bike courier (a series of images):

As traffic roared past the corner of York and Adelaide Streets one morning this week, a debate raged on the sidewalk outside the Starbucks that has become the latest hangout for Toronto's bicycle couriers. The crowd was motley, to stay the least, with a cast of characters that ranged from a young Lance Armstrong type to a silent stoner with rotting teeth and a bike that looked like it had been assembled from cast-off parts.

At issue was the biggest development ever to hit the courier community: the possible unionization of Toronto's courier firms by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Although the prospect of higher wages, paid vacation and a dental plan might be expected to spark interest, few of the sidewalk debaters seemed ready to embrace the idea of joining Big Labour.

"A union's never going to fly here," said one courier, dragging on a du Maurier before heading out on his next call. "If I wanted a union job, I would have gone out and got a union job."

On the face of it, the bicycle-courier trade seems like fertile ground for a union. Many Toronto bicycle couriers make less than $15,000 a year and have no benefits. They also face a gauntlet of hazards that include everything from errant cabs to frostbite (not to mention drug and alcohol overload on their spirited social scene). The union will make its pitch to Toronto's couriers at an information meeting to be held next week at a downtown hotel. The affair promises to be a vigorous one: "We're going to go to their meeting," veteran courier Colin Francis said. "We're going to eat their food and drink everything they've got."

"Second that," said one of Mr. Francis's companions.

Leah Hollinsworth, a 26-year-old who has spent the past five years working as a bicycle courier, sees the union as a possible fix for an ailing industry.

Over the past few years, she says, riders have seen their incomes fall as cut-rate courier firms arrive on the scene. "I think the industry is definitely declining for us," she said. "In theory, the union would be fabulous. Something has to happen, or the industry will collapse."

CUPW organizers see bicycle couriers as a natural fit for their union, since their role parallels that of postal workers. "If we can get everyone on board, it'll work," said a CUPW official who has spent months talking to Toronto couriers and company owners. "But in the end, it will be up to them."

CUPW's drive to organize Toronto couriers is part of a Canada-wide campaign that would swell the union's ranks and increase its power over the delivery industry. (With Canada's largest concentration of bicycle couriers, Toronto is considered a crucial beachhead.) The Toronto bicycle-courier community, estimated at up to 500 riders, is a highly specialized group. The top riders combine the skills of a bicycle racer with those of a packhorse, and can zip through traffic carrying anything from a business letter to a pair of feathered angel wings, as courier Radek Rajkowski once did after a call from a film crew who needed a pickup from a costume shop. "I had to wear them," Mr. Rajkowski notes. "They didn't fit in my bag."

The union's most obvious selling point is higher wages. Couriers' incomes have fallen because of a relentless combination of economic factors: the rise of fax machines and e-mail has hurt demand, and since the profession lacks barriers to entry, some companies have been able to be less selective in their hiring. "Now, it's like anyone can be a courier," Ms. Hollinsworth says. "Some of these companies are getting street people."

Couriers are typically paid 50 to 60 per cent of the cost of a delivery, but rates have fallen because of cutthroat competition. A package that once cost $4 to deliver, for example, may now be sent for as little as $2.

Ms. Hollinsworth, who works for a high-end company, gets a guaranteed $100 per day, and typically makes 30 to 40 deliveries, racking up an average of 75 kilometres in the process. By working efficiently, she can make up to $150 a day, but it's not easy.

"You really have to hustle," she says. In six years, Ms. Hollinsworth has taken just 10 days of vacation, and rides 12 months a year, no matter how bad the weather. When she started in the business, Ms. Hollinsworth says, the average income of a courier was about 50-per-cent higher than it is today.

"It just keeps going down," she says. "There's so much competition. If you want $5 for a delivery, someone else offers to do it for $4. Then along comes someone who'll charge $2."

Joe Hendry, a former courier who now works as a financial analyst, says unionizing the business could force an economic recalibration that would improve the lot of couriers. Even so, he says, the union faces an uphill battle, partly because of the inherently independent nature of many riders.

"It's going to be difficult," he said. "To make it work, you have to sign up every single company, or you won't have any power."

Rider skepticism isn't the only obstacle CUPW faces. There's also the inventiveness of the business people who own the courier companies. In Montreal, for example, CUPW was dealt a pre-emptive strike by company owners, who invited in a different union -- the Teamsters -- in the apparent belief that they would be less demanding.

Toronto courier company owners would prefer that the business remain non-unionized. Frank D'Angelo, owner of The Messengers International (TMI), one of the largest firms in the business, agrees that riders need to make more money, but he doesn't believe the union will accomplish that goal.

"If every company in the GTA was unionized, it would be a level playing field," he said. "But that won't happen."

Mr. D'Angelo believes the answer lies in enlightened capitalism. His firm charges far more than many others, but offers highly qualified couriers and high levels of service. TMI couriers get a guaranteed day rate, plus 60 per cent of the cost of each delivery. Many earn more than $150 a day, he said. TMI also pays Workplace Safety and Insurance Board premiums to cover riders injured on the job.

"My goal is to give couriers what they want," Mr. D'Angelo said. "I think we can do it without a union."

The Toronto courier industry has so far managed to avoid unionization. Only one firm, Dynamex, has been unionized, by the Teamsters. Dynamex couriers incomes' are comparable to those at other large firms, but they get benefits such as workers' compensation, employment insurance and dental care.

Although some riders envy the Dynamex couriers' perks, others object to the cost of union dues and payroll deductions.

"It was taking money out of my mouth," one former Dynamex rider says. "I didn't see the upside."

Ms. Hollinsworth says the business has largely failed to provide the benefits couriers need. Despite that, she says, the union will find couriers to be a tough sell: "They're going to see the immediate impact, not the potential benefit. A lot of couriers are going to say -- '$40 a month for union dues? Whoa, that's a case of beer!' "

Her sentiment was echoed by Glen Hofman, 33, who has worked in the business for 14 years, and refers to bicycle couriers as "disposable heroes." He has been seriously injured four times, and has virtually nothing to show for his efforts.

"The union isn't going to fly," he said. "Even though it's a great idea."

500 - estimated number of bicycle [s/b and foot] couriers working in Toronto according to veteran riders

20  - estimated number of bicycle couriers working in Toronto according to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers [? Don't get this one-ed]

80 - estimated number of kilometres covered per day by a Toronto bicycle courier

$2.17 - average amount a courier makes for delivering a $3.95 package

$150 - daily gross income of an elite courier working with a top delivery firm in peak season

$50-$100 -  typical gross daily income of an average courier working a nine-hour day

4 - number of times Glen Hofman has been seriously injured during his 14 years as a bicycle courier

6 - months Glen Hofman was forced to spend recuperating after being run down by a car

17 -  number of stitches required to close a cut suffered by courier Colin Francis after being struck by a taxi (he finished his shift after visiting the hospital)

2 - number of times courier Colin Francis has delivered electronic sexual implements to the same female customer at a Toronto hotel


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