For bike couriers, navigating the smog-filled concrete corridors of downtown T.O. is no easy ride. The hours are long, the pay is low, and the sweaty working conditions can literally be hazardous to your health.
Tired of riding on the beaten path and after what they describe as years of government neglect of their health and safety concerns, smog chief among them, Toronto's 500-plus bike messengers are talking about joining thousands of others across the country in a unionizing drive.
Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) national rep Valère Tremblay says the union, which is organizing couriers in 36 cities, hopes to "provide messengers with a grievance procedure" to address the government's neglect in the enforcement of employment standards in the industry.
How rough is the road out there for couriers? While some can make up to $150 a day, the majority earn $70 to $100. Most messengers routinely work more than nine hours a day, and aren't paid overtime or for vacations, statutory holidays or sick days.
Some companies require messengers to pay for their own radios, cellphones and pagers. In addition, messengers must pay for their own bike repairs and, in some cases, even their company uniforms.
Many couriers are shocked to learn they must also pay the employer's share of Canada Pension Plan contributions when they file their income taxes.
The union drive has some company owners concerned. Frank D'Angelo of Messengers International, one of about 140 courier outfits in the city, admits to being "a little worried. We may have become complacent, and some of us don't do as much as we can for our couriers," D'Angelo says. "The union drive is a wake-up call for the industry."
Still, some messengers have reservations about joining CUPW. "Right now, couriers' opinions are split," says local courier Sam Houston. "Some are hardcore for it. Others are hardcore against it."
Anti-union messengers aren't confident that the union will improve things. They don't want to pay union dues and get little in return. Even in the pro-union group, many are suspicious of the unionizing drive but don't see any alternative. Everything else has been tried to persuade companies to treat them fairly, so why not give a union a chance?
A meeting has been set up for CUPW to make its case directly to couriers next month.
The drive could be a wake-up call for governments, too.
The courts have already recognized that bike couriers' bodies are their engines by allowing a $15-a-day deduction for food as fuel on their income taxes.
Now the Sierra Legal Defence Fund is considering bringing suit against the province and feds for failing to curtail the smog that several studies show is having adverse long-term effects on couriers' health.
Albert Koehl, a lawyer with the group, says an argument for damages could be made. He points out that under section 14 of Ontario's Environmental Protection Act (EPA), it's an offence "to discharge a contaminant into the natural environment that causes an adverse effect." The EPA defines this as, among other things, "an adverse effect on the health of any person" or "interference with normal conduct of business."
Koehl says coal-fired power plants in Ontario may claim that their emissions are permitted pollution because they receive a pemit for them from the province.
But a case can still be made under the EPA, he says, if couriers can prove damage from the emissions.
Koehl says couriers may be able to go after car companies the same way smokers and other people damaged by second-hand smoke can go after cigarette companies.
Governments have not been completely honest about the dangers of smog.
Koehl notes that smog alerts are only issued if any one of six contaminants are over a certain level. That index, however, doesn't take into account the cumulative effect of the contaminants. "If five of the six are just below the limit, no smog alert is issued," he says, even on days when air quality may be worse.
Just last week, three Ontario residents, including Sierra Club of Canada executive director Elizabeth May, launched a class action alleging that Ontario Power Generation and 20 U.S. electricity firms have polluted the air with emissions from coal-fired plants, causing "premature death, aggravation of existing cardiac and respiratory illnesses, loss of lung capacity and lung inflammation, coughing, wheezing and respiratory and eye irritation, weakened immune system and increased susceptibility to pulmonary and other infections." The suit is seeking $50 billion in damages.