The Times They Are-a-Changing

BMA's and Unions

by joe hendry

The other night I came across a movie aboutthe origin of the NHL Players' Association. Apparently in the 1950's andearlier, professional hockey players were paid a paltry sum, received nobenefits and had few options. They had to agree to whatever the ownerswanted. If a player was traded he had to pay his own moving expenses. Theowners claimed they made no money and they even stole the players' pensionfund. In short the owners practiced a pattern of deceit and secrecy.

When the players led by Detroit's Ted Lindsaybegan to organize they met with a labour lawyer. He told them they hadto form a union. The players responded that a union was out of the question.Unions had such a bad reputation that the players chose to form players'association. At their inaugural press conference the new NHLPA was attackedby the press as "commie union bastards". Eventually the association becamea union and standards improved for the players.

Bike messengers like hockey players generallywould prefer to stay away from unions. Instead we too have formed associations.But both bike messenger associations (BMA's) and unions primarily existfor the same reasons - to improve the lot of messengers. Unions do it throughbargaining and binding contracts. BMA's prefer to exert pressure on ownersby informing the messenger community about their rights and hoping thatthe threat of a union will influence owners to comply with their legalresponsibilities.

While BMA's are extremely important tocouriers and they serve the messenger community in many ways, their influenceon the owners is limited. Owners view the BMA as a club or a small groupof messengers who want to, but are unable to form a union. A common misunderstandingthat the public, (including owners), have about messengers is that we dowhat we do because we can't do anything better. I recall a few situationswhere people told me that I could find a cheap car and "move up" to carcourier. When I first became a messenger, friends of my parents, in anattempt to "look on the bright side" for me, pointed out that as soon asI got to know all the streets of Toronto, I could become a cab driver.

In other words, the messenger companieslook at BMA's as a minor irritant and they behave as normal. What BMA'sdo accomplish on the labour front is they organize and educate messengers.BMA's provide optimism for the industry.

Eventually things must change. Either companiesimprove their working relationships or the BMA evolves into a union orthe BMA becomes inactive or disappears. Companies rarely improve standardsunless they're forced to. Very few BMA's become a union. The most commonscenario is that the couriers become impatient with the speed of changeand take smaller roles in the BMA.

That was in the past. In the 1990's messengershave learned many lessons. As a result of the first CMWC in 1993, a largeinternational network of messengers has grown. Communication among messengersin different cities is common. Successes and failures in foreign citiesprovide experience to couriers globally. Regional championships, alleycat races and other events have exploded all over the world. Unlike virtuallyevery other athletic event, a messenger championship is conceived, organized,and run by the participants themselves. Messengers own their events andthey are successful.

In the last year BMA's have formed in manymajor cites in the USA, Canada, the UK, Germany, and Australia. The InternationalFederation of Bike Messengers (IFBMA) unites couriers worldwide. Increasedcommunication has led to increased activism. When Boston unfairly (andlikely illegally) discriminated against messengers, the IFBMA exposed thecity to the world and visited the Massachusetts State Legislature to voicethe messengers side. The IFBMA went further in honouring Boston with itsinaugural Hall of Shame Award as the world's worst city in which to workas a professional bike messenger. Magazines across the North America andEurope devoted space to the award.


Couriers across Canada fought for two yearsto pressure Canada Post to enforce its own laws. And it looks like messengersin Calgary may have finally prompted Canada Post to act. BMA's have succeededin forcing advertisers to pull commercials that unfairly attack couriers.Messengers in many cities are raising finds for charity. In fact many messengerchampionships (including the 1999 North American Cycle Courier Championships)donate the profits to charity. Last year Messenger Appreciation Day washeld all over North America and even the courier company owners want apart of it for themselves.

The increased communication and interactionamong the world wide messenger community also brings sadness as an endlessstream of messengers around the world have passed away. They're unnecessarypassing prompted couriers at almost every gathering to join together toraise funds for the families of our fallen brothers and sisters. Theselosses provide motivation for us all to make our industry safer and moreresponsible to its service providers.
On the labour front, the most promisingnews is the most recent news. Messengers at Ultra Ex in San Francisco votedthis week to be represented by a union. This is the most significant labourevent in the more than hundred years of the bike messenger industry.

Although there have been unions beforethis one is different. The San Francisco Bike Messenger Association (SFBMA)is the oldest active BMA. It began like many BMA's but about two yearsago the SFBMA embarked on a union drive to organize the entire city's bike,foot and car messengers including office staff. Previous union drives wererestricted to one company. Ultra Ex is just the first of many companiesin SF to face union votes. The SFBMA has shown messengers around the worldthat perseverance and determination yield great rewards.

Couriers everywhere support San Francisco'sefforts and will use the SFBMA's experience to improve the industries intheir own cities. Ultra Ex is the first domino in a long wobbly line ofcompanies spanning North America.

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