[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]
The following interview was conducted by members of the Chicago Couriers Union (ccu) who felt it was best to remain anonymous for various reasons. As a truly democratic organization, we feel that consensus in our actions is a necessary component in the work that we do, including how we represent ourselves publicly. For these reasons, and for consistency, all answers are a collaboration of the members present and were approved by the larger body of the ccu through meeting and consensus. While it is an involved process, we feel that it builds an allinclusive standard for our organization.
Organizing couriers has been a long-running endeavor throughout the history of the messenger industry. Many attempts have been made in the past, with mixed results. Some of these include messengers organizing strikes at Transerv Courier in Portland, OR, and messengers affiliating with the Longshore and Warehouse Union on the west coast. But the ideals of a fair workplace are commonplace among the drivers, bikers, walkers, and the rest of the industry.
The ccu, although already in existence, made its debut in 2005 when bikers of Arrow Messenger Service, working toward a pay raise, held a two hour radio silence, leaving the company with little ability to continue with business for the day. This was one of the first actions of its kind in Chicago and the bikers, and drivers, were rewarded for their effort, by gaining a commission raise on each run, something few thought could be done at the time.
Since this event, the ccu, part of the International Workers of the World (iww), has been actively organizing and expanding past Arrow to all messengers of every company in the city. The ccu continues to provide programs to help messengers with typical problems that arise in the workplace. Some recent examples include intervening and establishing a dialogue with a building’s management to reverse the banning of a fellow courier, and retaining legal counsel to fight for workman’s compensation for those injured on the job. Our most current fight is to rid the industry of the National Independent Contractors Association (nica), a group that preys on workers questionably defined as “independent contractors”, supposedly providing injury insurance for a fee to couriers.
A few members of the ccu sat down and held an inter-membership interview amongst each other that turned out to be more of a candid conversation of how we see ourselves and our work in this industry.
What is the ccu all about?
The ccu is a non traditional labor union with open membership to anyone who is a courier in Chicago. We operate on a worker-centered model, where we offer programs and services to messengers, in addition to our larger drive to organize the messenger industry. Something that we feel is interesting to note is that our campaign is not built around formal recognition of the union. Rather than try to use government agencies, such as the National Labor Relations Board, we try to fight around issues as soon as we have the power to make the fight, which we feel makes us sort of unique. The fundamentals are the same as any other labor organization: to improve working standards and wages, and to address problems in the workplace and to rectify them. But, mostly out of necessity, we have to go about it in different ways.
What are some of the services that the ccu offers?
Currently, we have a loaner bike program for members of the union, in case you get into an accident at work, which is very common, or a breakdown, and you need something to ride while your bike gets replaced or repaired. We also have a health clinic in the works where people can go and get checked out. Messengering is very taxing work and you really can’t do it if you’re ill or injured. Recently, we began doing “Food not Standby,” offering free meals to messengers in between runs, which we plan to have happening once a month. We also have lawyers and legal counsel when dealing with companies, filing unfair labor practices and things of that nature. We also operate a grievance committee to handle individual issues with the messenger companies and building managements if couriers are having issues with pay, injuries, etc. The grievance committee works to find methods to resolve problems using either direct or indirect actions.
How do these actions build solidarity in the messenger industry?
Typically, it seems that if you’re having a problem in your workplace—unless you’re a member of a union or are being actively organized, you have to just take it, to deal with it. We work with people that are not members of the union. We hope people will be inspired by the work we do and will continue working with us, so that we can gain membership and make ourselves a stronger organization in the long run. But, really what we do is to look out for one another as people doing the same work—without necessarily being part of the same organization or working for the same companies.
How is does this work as far as other groups involvement is concerned?
It is a bit premature to think about the issue of our relationship to other organizations because we have very little to offer other groups and it would be presumptuous to think we can offer something to larger organizations because we are very small. We don’t currently have large battles to fight where we would need the solidarity of other organizations in numbers. We certainly support the principle of group-to-group solidarity, but we haven’t really gotten to a stage where we could test it out on a practical level.
How would the ccu define solidarity in relation to the work being done?
It seems like it should be a guiding principle to organizing rather than anything else. It’s making someone’s problems (that don’t directly affect you) your own problems. In the messenger industry,it’s never been formally organized, because we don’t have a grievance procedure and many of us don’t have access to even legally guaranteed rights (such as worker’s compensation and minimum wage), it’s natural for messengers to lean on each other. When the organizing first began, it wasn’t like the organizers could offer this new principle of “solidarity”, trying to push messengers to look out for each other because the reaction was that everybody already does, possibly more so than in other industries. That tends to guide a lot of the work that we’ve done so far.
What are the day to day actions that foster these ideals and principles?
For example, if you were to see someone broken down, whether you know them or not, and depending on what you know you can offer, you stop and ask if you can lend a hand, which is not an uncommon thing among messengers. When we’ve had problems with equipment in the past, there was always some person who would offer to go to their place after work and help to figure it out. And although some of these same people are not part of this organization, they are willing to lend support and are interested in what it is that we’re doing.
There’s also what happens among messengers when one of us has an accident. Usually within an hour most of the messengers in the city know that someone has been hit. A lot of the time others will go visit the injured person in the hospital, see how they’re doing and offer any assistance that they may need. It’s always pretty amazing to see how quickly people will rally around something like that. There are times when it’s a person that you don’t even know who gets hurt, but there’s always just some little benefit. Someone who’s never done any kind of fundraising before will start to pass around a can or put on a small concert to raise money for that person just because they are a messenger, too.
What are some of the aspects of the ccu organizing that you find different than in typical workplaces?
It seems like in this industry, the general trend is that the people who are the most active in the union are actually some of the people who could not be considered the worst off. It is generalizing, but the people who are doing well financially and don’t have much to worry about are doing tons of work on behalf of those who are not doing very well, and are often leading the charge. Unfortunately, sometimes they are the first to get fired, but that dynamic seems particularly interesting and kind of defines the sort of solidarity that makes up the union. An example of that is the messenger strike at Arrow, but also currently with the anti-nica campaign. A lot of the people working on it are not working under nica, but they see that nica is a detriment to the industry,and out of this kind of base-layer solidarity, have thrown themselves toward fighting it. °— For more information on the ccu, please contact us at 312-638-9155.
FURTHER READINGS Rosemont, Franklin; Charles Radcliffe. 2005 Dancin’ in the Streets: Anarchists, iwws, Surrealists, Situationists and Provos in the 1960s as Recorded in the Pages of Rebel Worker and Heatwave. Charles H Kerr Press.
Buhle, Paul and Nicole Schulman, ed. 2004 Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Verso Books.
Brissenden, Paul F. 1919 (1920. Reprinted by Russell & Russell, New York, 1957.). The iww: A Study of American Syndicalism, 2nd edition. Columbia University Press.
Rosen, Ellen Doree 2004. A Wobbly Life: Iww Organizer E. F. Doree. Wayne State University Press. (includes bibliographical references and index).
Dubofsky, Melvyn 2000. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. University of Illinois Press.