Road rights

photo of Kevin Barnhorst by Christopher Kaiser, from the Food Issue

Courier union drive won't be curbed

Q&A with Toronto bicycle messenger, Kevin Barnhorst, President of the CUPW Toronto Courier Local 104

dandyhorse: Why do bicycle messengers want to unionize? What are the benefits?

Kevin Barnhorst: Bike messengers, as well as car and walking messengers, are organizing here because their wages and working conditions do not meet the minimum standards under the labour code. We are incorrectly classified as independent contractors and as such do not benefit from a guaranteed minimum wage, overtime, vacation pay, holiday pay, or termination pay. While messengers could pursue claims for these unpaid benefits individually, by organizing with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers we have a better chance at making a lasting improvement to the labour conditions for all messengers.

Why did you take on the position of union local president?

Quite frankly, because no one else wanted the position. I was recently elected president of Local 104 (CUPW) and my hope is that my willingness to be visibly, vocally and unabashedly in favour of the union drive will encourage others to do the same.

One of the major impediments in the organizing drive has been the fear of reprisals from management, which could be a reduced quantity of work, or outright firing. The fact is that we have a legal right to unionize and any attempt by management to suppress our efforts to that end is against the law.

What is your major concern as a bicycle messenger?

What it all comes down to, for me, is respect. Messengers work extremely hard in all weather conditions, risking life and limb on increasingly congested streets, and are employed by companies that are largely indifferent to their ability to pay the rent. We work for companies that do not respect our rights as employees and, on a daily basis we dodge cars that don't respect our rights on the road.

When and why did you become a bicycle messenger?

I came back to Toronto in 2008 after graduating from university and I needed a job. Being a messenger seemed like it would be fun. And it is! I love being a bike messenger, and that's one of the main reasons I support the organizing drive; I want to be able to do this job for a long time and have something to show for it other than a pair of busted knees.

What are the benefits to the city if messenger services unionize?

The messenger industry has extremely high worker turnover due to its initial appeal, the low pay, and the high cost of living in the city. Better compensation for messenger work will lead to a more stable, experienced and professional workforce able to provide better service to the city’s business community.

On a more general level, ensuring a living wage for workers is vital to our society. As we can see in the current “Occupy” protests internationally, economic inequality is quickly becoming the most important issue of our time. Unionizing bike messengers is just one small part of the struggle for the rights of workers, not just in Toronto, but worldwide.

Is there a way that civilians (non-couriers) can support your cause?

Use unionized messenger companies.

Kevin Barhorst was featured alongside Canada’s top professional racer, Ryder Hesjedal, in our extended centre spead "Fast Food" of the current issue of dandyhorse.

For more information on the union drive:

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