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Bike couriers courted by postal union





By Nate Hendley

Are Toronto's bike couriers going postal? That's the aim of an unlikely alliance between the 100-member Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition and the 60,000-strong Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). Offered a choice between their independence and the possibility of better working conditions, couriers are having a hard time deciding.

Union backing might help Toronto's estimated 375 bike messengers get medical and accident insurance, pension plans and pay rates above the industry average of $250-$400 a week. However, joining CUPW would mean working with car messengers, something bike couriers vehemently oppose.

Couriers also fear unionization would involve a loss of autonomy.

"The common thing in this profession is that they're misfits," says Wayne Scott, a 48-year-old former bike and foot messenger and founder of the Courier Coalition. "They don't fit into common society."

The other impediment is the nature of the business itself: the messenger industry is "very transient," admits Coalition chair Derek Chadbourne.

For their part, company owners say brutal competition and tight profit margins make unionizing impossible.

The Courier Coalition originated three years ago when Scott slipped on a ramp leading to Metro Hall's basement. "I found out three weeks later that I had a compression fracture of a vertebra," explains Scott, who was working as a walking messenger at the time.

When he phoned the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, he learned his classification as an independent contractor meant they couldn't help him. Unable to get coverage for the month of work he missed, Scott tried to get Metro Hall to pay up -- building management was responsible for his accident, he claimed, because they demanded all couriers enter the building via an unsafe ramp. Metro Hall suggested his accident was unique, which lead to Scott postering courier hangouts with "chat with a bureaucrat" announcements.

A musician, graphic artist and free spirit himself, Scott admits he was pleased when even a handful of couriers showed up to discuss unsafe access to Metro Hall. At these meetings, the Courier Coalition was born, with the immediate goal of opening more doors to couriers at Metro Hall.

"We kept on them until they changed their policy," says Scott, who eventually collected $3,000 from Metro Hall. Couriers can now enter the building via ground floor entrances.

Following this victory, Scott focused on a battle with Revenue Canada over food and taxes. Last summer, the Federal Court of Appeal agreed with his argument that "food is fuel" for couriers and should be a deductible job expense. In March, the Tax Court of Canada said Scott was entitled to $11 a day in tax breaks for the sustenance he consumed as a messenger. The ruling applies only to Scott but might be used as a precedent by other couriers.

Occupied with his one-man tax revolt, Scott became less involved with the Courier Coalition. He didn't run when the Coalition elected officers in the fall of '98 and was not supportive when messengers started talking about unionizing.

Union discussions began after a contact in the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) hooked up the couriers with Gordie Ash, national coordinator for CUPW organizing. The postie and the couriers met in a Toronto coffee shop shortly after the new year. Coalition vice-president Keith MacDonald admits the idea of unionizing "wasn't hardcore in our minds at the time," but was impressed by Ash nonetheless.

Back in 1990, MacDonald missed 12 weeks of work after being hit by a cab. He says he broke the orbital bone under his right eye and "didn't get a dime" in medical pay from Critical Path, the company he was working for.

Couriers usually work on commission, earning what amounts to minimum wage for one of the most dangerous jobs imaginable. They often have to pay for their own bikes, repairs and equipment, clothes and sometimes a rental fee on their radios.

"We're very much like workers from the 19th century," observes Coalition treasurer Joe Hendry.

The courier business is "one of the last bastions of piece-work on the continent," adds Coalition secretary Bill Long.

But not all couriers leap at the chance to join CUPW. One thing that galls bicycle messengers is that CUPW insists bike couriers work with their motorized counterparts. Ash helped organize car couriers in Winnipeg and says "the issues are the same" whether messengers drive or bike. Many companies employ both, and it would be difficult to "carve off" one group for a union drive and ignore the other.

But "the general consensus among Coalition members is that they don't want to be with cars," says MacDonald. "A lot of couriers are anti-car."

Another stumbling block is bike couriers' famously individualistic attitude, which also extends to courier companies. Messengers often split to set up their own tiny company, which makes union organizing difficult. Doug Moffatt, executive director of the Canadian Courier Association, estimates that less than 10 per cent of the 150 businesses
associated with the CCA use bike messengers. "They tend not to be association-joining organizations," he says. "They're a special breed."

Brutal price wars between courier companies mean thin profit margins, says Greg Linton, president and owner of Secured Courier, which employs 40 cyclists and drivers and paid out about $1.2 million in courier commissions last year. He says his company would go bust if he had to recognize his independent "brokers" as workers and start paying WSIB premiums and benefits. Asked how he would respond to a union organizing drive among his couriers, Linton says, "I'd probably tell them to work elsewhere."

The next step in the dance between posties and couriers will be June 5-6, when CUPW will have an info booth at the North American Cycle Courier Championships in Toronto. In the meantime, the Courier Coalition's trying to raise public respect for their profession.

"Our image is that we're all reckless and live on the street," says MacDonald. "Just because I'm on a bike delivering packages all day doesn't mean I'm a