Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Organizing Local Messengers: Working Conditions and Barriers to Unionization

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Organizing Local Messengers: Working Conditions and Barriers to Unionization

Article excerpt


Within the past decade there has been remarkable growth within courier, delivery and messenger services, particularly in and around large metropolitan areas. (1) In the period from 1997 to 2008, there was a 71 percent increase in the number of courier and local messenger companies operating in Canada (Statistics Canada 1999; 2010). However, there is wide variation within the industry, especially between overnight couriers and same-day delivery services. The overnight courier industry is dominated by national and international corporations and is characterized by relatively stable, and sometimes unionized working conditions. In contrast, the same-day courier industry is dominated by local and regional companies, is primarily non-unionized, and is characterized by precarious and highly variable working conditions. 'Local messengers' typically deliver letters, documents and small parcels within a single urban area, by bicycle, on foot, or by car, providing 'just-in-time' deliveries on non-standardized routes. Local messengers comprise 90 percent of the total number of courier and messenger establishments (17,559 companies in 2008), (2) but generate only 18 percent of the industry's operating revenue ($1.6 billion in 2008) and account for approximately 20 percent of the volume within the industry (Short 2004; Statistics Canada 2010).

This paper examines the working conditions and prospects for unionization among same-day local messengers within Toronto and the surrounding metropolitan area. With the growth of precarious employment and pressures on workers in various services to accept positions as contractors, this research contributes to our understanding of the difficulty of organizing 'at the margins.' Most same-day messengers are classified as 'independent contractors' and, as a result, must absorb the costs of employment, including vehicle purchase, maintenance, fuel and insurance. Yet they appear to have little control over their income and other working conditions, since the companies to which they contract their services set the delivery rates, structure their working day, and control schedules and access to vacations.

This lack of autonomy calls into question whether messengers are truly 'independent' in their work relationships (Short 2004). When the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) recently brought this question to the Labour Board, the Board recognized couriers as employees or dependent contractors (CUPW 2012; HRDC 2000). In this study, we develop a detailed understanding of the messengers' everyday working conditions and the contractual parameters under which they provide their services, as well as those areas that might be improved through collective bargaining. Ultimately, we question why local messengers, who would undoubtedly reap substantial benefit from unionization, are as a group not amenable to it. We question whether messengers' disinterest in unionization is a result of the structure of their work, their preference for 'independence', the union's organizing campaigns, or other factors.


Social analysts considering the 'new economy' often focus on the complex network of relationships between organizations entailing flexible workplace practices and transforming relations on a number of levels (Adkins 2005). It is now well established that within the 'new economy' workers are experiencing deeper levels of insecurity, particularly within the service sector, as precarious employment has become the defining characteristic of the condition of work (Vosko 2007; Pupo and Thomas 2010). The emphasis on flexibility and shifting employment practices has meant the loss of security afforded by a long-term attachment to a particular workplace or type of work. Instead workers in the tertiary sector today will spend their working years meandering through the maze of low-wage, precarious jobs in search of arrangements offering them only the possibility of work. …

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