Can you picture the city's bike couriers putting down their kickstands and walking off the job?
Well, they probably can't yet either. That's why Canadian Union of Postal Workers Local 104 is putting a war chest together - all the better to embolden the bike-mounted workhorses in a sector that hovers somewhere near fast food standards.
And perhaps that's being charitable. "We've been helping couriers go after employers who have ripped them off, fired them or treated them in a manner you won't see at a McDonald's," one union report reads.
On Friday (September 13), the Toronto-based local is putting the rubber to the road, so to speak, hosting a strike fund benefit to take a difficult organizing drive to the next level.
It's not just that couriers have nowhere to take grievances against their bosses, the 150 to 160 companies that employ about 150 bike couriers. It's that the state of Toronto's courier industry is uniquely, especially bad, akin to the Wild West, says Kevin Barnhorst, president of CUPW 104.
"We've had a union certification since 2011," he says, describing a long, difficult process to get that far. Originally, because courier services are a postal service of a sort, attempts at unionizing were regulated at the federal level.
The courts, however, disagreed - costing the Toronto Courier local its initial federal certifications at three companies. Then two other attempts at provincial certification fell through before a third and final effort ultimately succeeded. "We've had one certification or the other for about three years now," says Barnhorst. Today, Quick Messenger Service remains the only certified bargaining unit; 20 messengers are presently represented by the local.
"Union membership is available to any courier in Toronto," Barnhorst adds, "but in order to be part of a certified bargaining unit, a member's workplace must be organized and win a certification vote."
Despite those baby steps toward labour enfranchisement, "there's been no meaningful movement on our core demands," he says. The current state of bike messenging is no better than it was at the beginning.
"Across pretty much the entire same-day courier industry," Barnhorst tells NOW, "workers are classified as independent contractors." Some average a 10-hour day, and none have enough leverage to advocate on their own behalf.
Employers, it seems, make use of Toronto's two-wheel warriors as a sort of indentured labour. "They are committed to this model," Barnhorst says. "This has been industry standard for, what, 30 years?"
"We frequently make less than minimum wage," he says. "We get no vacation pay, no stat holiday pay. Most couriers aren't covered by WSIB." Despite all their legwork, most lack the protections that those in less physically demanding jobs can expect, like overtime or even basic dismissal standards.
But this weekend, the hard-fought drive reaches critical mass. (Pun intended.) A funder at Steelworkers Hall aims to raise cash for any labour walkout to come and features such bands as the Idaho Stop, named after the contentious cycling technique that treats a stop sign as a yield.
With the slogan "Stop the sweatshop on wheels" and cash in reserve, the union hopes to put muscle behind its demands. "A lot of couriers just don't get a lot of love from big organizations, from bureaucracy, from government, from anyone," Barnhorst says. "It's a pretty downtrodden segment of the population."