This article was written in 2005 by Tim Stelloh, a former messenger who was an incredibly sharp, capable journalist. He put in a bid with the Chicago Reader to write a story on the developing IWW Chicago Couriers Union, focusing on the explosive organizing at one of the city’s biggest messenger companies, where I was then working. The Reader approved his story, and he researched, wrote, and submitted it (I am the pseudonymous “Chris Williams” mentioned in the article). They then scooped him by rejecting his work and running a story on the new Four Star Courier Collective, a small, cooperatively-run messenger company, with only a sentence or two about the CCU. I don’t know where the author and my former fellow worker is today, but he gave me permission to publish it many years ago, though I never found an avenue for it. — MK Lees
On a snowy Thursday afternoon in early March, 19 of Arrow Messenger Service’s 21 “on-demand” bike couriers switched off their 2-way Nextel radios. They met up at the Thompson Center, the Loop’s bike messenger hangout, and huddled beneath its angled mauve and pale-blue panels, posing for what looks like a high school yearbook snapshot—some smiling, some smoking cigarettes, but each unsure of what was about to happen.
The two-hour “radio silence” that followed amounted to a temporary walkout—a way to grab the company’s attention without crippling business, but to nevertheless send a clear signal: management would either negotiate, or tell clients they couldn’t meet deadlines.
Around four o’clock, Steve “Swampy” Waters, a former metalworker with a handful of teeth missing from a nearly fatal hit and run, a constantly lit cigarette dangling from his mouth and a voice nearly as garbled as Tom Waits, tried checking in with his dispatcher, Marshall Arnold. Arnold didn’t respond. One by one, each messenger followed suit, and each was met with the same dead air. After a few minutes of discussing their next move, they hopped on their bikes and headed to base, a steady stream of bright yellow vests and helmets, black cargo pants and jackets—of Arrow’s bike fleet in its required uniforms rolling up Milwaukee Avenue.
Outside the office, in a freshly paved parking lot that runs alongside the Augusta Street 90/94 ramp, the group was met by two squad cars that had been called by nervous Arrow managers. After a few words with Waters, they took off; the bikers, however, were stuck in the parking lot. All of the office’s doors had been locked.
After a half hour, a few expletives and some calls to Sam Leylek, Arrow’s operations manager at the time, they were allowed in the office’s rear garage—a large, bare room with a polished concrete floor, several bikes hanging from the ceiling and a row of banged-up lockers. Waters and another messenger, Chris “Passion” Otahal—who was given his nickname for his striking resemblance to a certain Jewish carpenter—were asked to meet with Leylek, Tom Krier, Arrow’s accountant, and Phyllis Apelbaum, the company’s president and founder.
Marshall Arnold, an artist and former bike courier who often wears turtle-necks that make him look like Mr. Magoo, was expected to be at the meeting as well, but had been suspended during the two hour radio silence. When management asked if he knew anything about the work stoppage, he refused to comment, and was subsequently sent home. He filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and withdrew the complaint when Arrow agreed to award backpay.
After winding their way through the building’s maze-like interior and into Apelbaum’s office, the two groups began negotiations—but only after Apelbaum accused bikers of betrayal. She had received a call from her biggest client, demanding to know why her workers were on strike, and assumed one of her messengers had tipped the company off. (Several Arrow messengers would later testify that it wasn’t anyone in their fleet that called Bank One; they allege that Chicago Messenger Service—Chicago’s largest courier service—made the call in an attempt to steal the client).
“She was almost in tears,” Otahal later told me. “She was like ‘I’m so hurt that you would do this to me.’” Despite Apelbaum’s pleas, Otahal and Waters repeated the workers’ core demand—and only demand at that point: a flat raise of 25 cents per delivery. Unlike most companies, which pay 50 percent commission to their workers, Arrow’s on-demand messengers—couriers who are dispatched work and whose pay is based on percentage of that work, as opposed to route or in-house couriers—receive a flat rate that they estimate at between 35 and 45 percent, which usually amounts to somewhere between 275 and 350 dollars a week. A raise of 25 cents per delivery, they said, would put them on par with other companies. Despite Apelbaum’s prior unwillingness to negotiate, she decided, for the first time, to take her employees demands seriously. Or so she said.
Last September, a few messengers began figuring out ways to organize at Arrow. This was no small task. Because the Chicago courier industry is so bloated—with roughly 70-plus companies all competing for the same business—and because employee turnover is extremely high, a strong base to negotiate demands has been all but non-existent. Add an “urban cowboy,” highly individualistic attitude to the mix, and organizing the industry might seem impossible. Yet there’s more: others blame the absence of organized labor on the inability of courier-organizers to recruit drivers, who, according to Labor Notes, a magazine that chronicles the US labor movement, are “older, people of color, immigrants, ex-inmates, former welfare recipients, or more traditionally blue collar people . . . and tend to make up the majority of the [same-day delivery] workforce,” while bikers “tend to be younger, whiter, and more itinerant.”
There are, after all, only two American cities where messengers have successfully unionized—in San Francisco through the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and in Portland, Oregon, through the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In ’93, the bikers, drivers, walkers and dispatchers at Chicago-based Deadline Express created the Deadline Express Drivers Association, an organization that was certified by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) [not quite accurate. The Deadline union was an independent, unaffiliated union — MK Lees]. Unfortunately, shortly after it was created, the DEDA fell apart, as its central organizer died of cancer. Thus, the courier industry is notorious for an array of offenses—from cutting costs by trimming benefits (or, most commonly, not providing benefits at all) to turning employees into independent contractors and generally low pay.
Arrow couriers, like most couriers, aren’t even told their employer’s rates. On Arrow pay stubs, messengers are simply told their “settlement”—the amount they receive for each job. But, because they’re not told how much a client is charged, there’s no transparency. Arrow could charge a client 15 dollars, and pay couriers three dollars—or seven and a half dollars. When I was hired by Arrow in July of 2004, I was told during orientation that the company’s rates are competitive. But I wasn’t given any numbers. Arrow organizers, who got a hold of the company’s rates from office employees, proved the claim dead wrong.
Likewise, many couriers are required to work for free. One of Arrow’s big clients—Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw—requires that each order is a round-trip, yet the firm only pays for the front half of the job. Here’s how it works in practice: say an Arrow courier gets an order going to 900 N. Michigan Avenue. The courier would pick up the package at Mayer, Brown’s office at 190 S. LaSalle Street and deliver it within the specified amount of time. The courier is then expected to return a signed packing slip to the firm’s office, again within a specified amount of time. Yet the courier is only paid for the initial trip from 190 S. LaSalle to 900 N. Michigan.
“The way that it was presented to us,” said Mark Jackson, an Arrow courier who, like many Arrow employees I spoke with, didn’t want his name used for fear of retaliation by either Arrow or a messenger company he might work with in the future, “is that Mayer, Brown is a really tough account to keep—that there are constantly people trying to steal it, and that this is one of the ways that [Arrow] is able to keep the account. I can understand that to a degree, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re working for free.”
Yet the galvanizing force that brought organizers together during the summer of 2004 wasn’t free work or low rates. It was independent contractors. Or more appropriately, the National Independent Contractor Association, a company that, according to its website, allows businesses to “Delegate your IC-related administrative tasks to us, so you can spend your time doing the work you do best.” In other words, NICA trims company costs by taking over traditional business responsibilities like payroll and health care. Paychecks are signed by NICA. Health care premiums go directly to Massachusetts, where the company is based. Companies no longer pay social security, workers’ compensation, or unemployment. Not surprisingly, business owners have long supported the use of IC’s. The problem, however, is that most couriers don’t fit the IC mold.
Guenevere Nyderek, a veteran courier with long, wavy hair, tattoos on the backs of her legs and a worn idealism, told me about how she petitioned the IRS when On The Fly—a company I worked for from May to August of 2004—wouldn’t recognize her as an employee (and insisted that she remain an IC). The IRS has a checklist that determines whether an independent contractor is actually a contractor, or merely an employee forced to pose as one. If you create your own client base and decide your daily schedule, for example, chances are you’re a contractor. Yet if you have a daily schedule set for you and are assigned work—as Nyderek was, and like most couriers are—you’re most likely an employee. Kelly Landry, owner of On The Fly, fought Nyderek tooth and nail, but was forced to concede. The company paid Nyderek’s 2003 back taxes.
Despite Nyderek’s success in fighting her independent contractor status, companies all over the country have become NICA “affiliates.” Thus enter the Chicago Couriers Union, a group of 25 or so couriers and ex-couriers that are chartering an IWW branch and do everything from providing health care clinics, tax prep and orientation for new messengers, to assembling “industrial organizing committees” and “shop committees” to assess worker grievances. During the summer of ’04, in response to several companies that were signing on with NICA, the CCU created the Stop NICA Committee.
Chris Williams, a CCU organizer who worked with the committee and didn’t want his real name used because of his involvement with Arrow, said he’s worked closely with messengers who’ve born the brunt of NICA’s policies. Many have paid their weekly premiums, he said, but haven’t seen returns on hospital bills. One messenger, Miguel Gutierrez, didn’t even get a call back.
When Standard Courier and Quicksilver Messenger Service began telling couriers they needed to sign NICA’s agreements and waivers, the SNC organized rallies outside their offices. Though both companies became affiliates, the protest at Quicksilver apparently rattled the owner enough to postpone the decision for six months.
Shortly after the NICA campaign, Williams began meeting with other Arrow messengers. Initially, they met with only a little regularity—once a month, once every two weeks, and occasionally once a week in the kitchen of a run-down group house in Pilsen.
By December and January, the group was solid enough that it began reaching out to the rest of Arrow’s bike fleet. By late January, nearly all of Arrow’s bikers were attending the cramped, smoke-filled weekly meetings. On February 4th, an unsigned letter was submitted to Apelbaum and other top managers at Arrow. It simply stated that the industry commission standard is based on an even split between employer and employee/contractor, and that Arrow’s flat rate policy is well below that standard. Since Arrow had not given its employees a raise in a decade, the letter read, it should consider raising its flat-rate to meet the industry standard.
Within a few days, Apelbaum requested a meeting with Steve Waters. She initially told him, according to an affidavit he would later file with the NLRB, that she “wasn’t even going to discuss the issues presented in the letter . . . [that she] was going to throw it in the garbage can.” (Apelbaum didn’t return phone calls for an interview request). But because Waters’ name was mentioned as a representative, she relented—albeit only to tell him that a raise was impossible. The industry standard is no longer 50 percent, she said, and—unlike many courier companies in Chicago—Arrow pays unemployment, workers’ comp. and social security.
On the afternoon of March 9th—the day before the radio silence—Chris Otahal and Waters met with Apleabum who, once again, said the company couldn’t afford a raise. Since Arrow had fairly consistent turnover with employees, Otahal suggested implementing a hiring freeze—a move that would boost moral and productivity, and lessen employee expense. According to Waters’ affidavit, Apelbaum responded by telling Otahal “that it doesn’t matter—the company cannot afford [a raise]. If you want a better job—leave and go—go to work at McDonalds.”
That evening, after hashing out a number of ideas, the group decided on a solution. “Our plan was to shut off our radios for two hours to prove how important we are to the company,” said Jack Barton, an Arrow messenger who didn’t want his real name mentioned. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. “We turned our radios back on, and something we didn’t think of was that [dispatchers] might just not answer us—that they might be hiring everyone they can and pushing the work out to whom ever would take it, which is what they were doing.”
Arrow was started in the early ‘70s in the basement of 333 N. Michigan Avenue. Over the years, it grew into a formidable messenger service—not quite Chicago’s largest, but one of its most visible and, under Apelbaum’s guiding hand, one of its sharpest dressed.
At one point, bikers were required to sport yellow dress shirts and black ties—a uniform that’s been downgraded to yellow short-sleeve polo shirts and black cargo shorts during spring, summer and fall, and black jackets and black cargo pants the rest of the year (if you’re caught wearing shorts in November, you’re sent home to change into proper attire). Thick, fluorescent vests and yellow helmets are also required year-round. Dress code enforcement is taken seriously. Arrow messenger center couriers, who bring packages to and from offices in buildings that don’t want bikers on the premises, are encouraged to inform on bikers that are out of uniform, according to Mike Martin, a long time employee who didn’t want his real name used. In an industry known for its wild characters and a personal appearance ethic relative to the extreme nature of the job, Apelbaum’s micro-managing style set the tone for the Chicago industry; many companies now require such extensive uniforms. But it hasn’t always benefited business.
A couple of years ago, for example, she instituted a no-visible tattoo policy. Not surprisingly, the rule didn’t fly with bikers. Following the firing of a long-time employee, and the subsequent resignations of several other couriers in response to the firing, Arrow began losing clients—not because of Apelbaum’s decision, but because Arrow couldn’t get the work done. “We had one of the best crews in the city, and [Apelbaum] ruined it,” says Martin. “We had no bikers coming aboard, because word on the street was that Arrow was a Nazi Gestapo place.”
Apelbaum is a large, round woman who can have a dismissive, sometimes “belligerent” demeanor, as one courier told me. Most messengers haven’t met her, but speak with all the contempt and cynicism of disaffected teenagers: they can’t stand that she has two Mercedes, a place on Lakeshore Drive and enough money to buy her accountant a new car, yet refuses to give them raise; that she utterly refuses to listen during negotiations (and will, as one messenger told me, interrupt mid-sentence with something that’s “more important”); that she insists the company can’t spend an extra dime, but won’t prove it.
For a time, she was president of the Messenger Courier Association of the Americas, an industry association that serves as a kind of network for courier companies in the States and abroad. She was also the central architect of the Chicago Messenger Ordinance—an item that gets a fairly mixed reaction from the couriers that actually know it exists. On the one hand, the law requires that they carry courier ID cards, wear helmets and have visible, worker number IDs (usually located on the messenger bag). On the other hand, it requires that employers purchase worker’s compensation insurance, regardless of whether their couriers are contractors or employees. While the initial segment of the ordinance is often seen as unnecessary or annoying, the latter is hugely beneficial to couriers. The big problem with the ordinance, however, is its haphazard enforcement.
“There have been some episodic enforcement efforts,” said Randy Neufeld of the Chicagoland Bike Federation, which helped design the messenger ordinance. “Somebody gets hit, or complaints will rise and the police will go out and write a couple of tickets. There’s an uproar, and then it goes away.” During the summer of 2003, for example, when a couple of bike cops’ bikes were stolen, enforcement of the helmet/ID section of the ordinance went into high gear. Over a hundred messengers were ticketed; yet when many fought the charges, they were dropped. Couriers were left scratching their heads, wondering why they had been singled out and pursued by a law that rarely sees such action.
But the real problem with the ordinance, according to Neufeld, lies in the workers’ compensation rule. Since the law doesn’t require proof of insurance at the time of purchasing a business license, companies can potentially get away without having any. Thus, couriers involved in accidents have no recourse—except to hire a workers’ comp lawyer, which involves a tremendous amount of time, energy and money. “The workers comp issue is the clearest grievance and the clearest example that the ordinance is not necessarily working the way that it was intended to,” said Neufeld. “Companies are disobeying the law and getting away with it.”
Regardless, the ordinance’s workers’ comp law throws a kink into what can otherwise seem like the Apelbaum caricature. Arrow is not only “the exception to the workers’ comp rule,” as Neufeld said, it provides the basic benefits that most courier companies don’t—accident insurance, holiday pay, social security, worker’s compensation and unemployment. If this seems like your average employment package, it is. But in an industry that’s trying to save a buck by turning employees into independent contractors that are guaranteed nothing but the bare minimum (and sometimes not even that), Arrow’s perks seem like a goldmine.
And yet, using meager benefits as a justification for lower-than-average pay doesn’t sit well with Arrow couriers. “She calls them benefits, but they’re the absolute minimum,” said Chris Otahal of receiving social security, workers’ compensation and unemployment. “It’s not like we have health care, or like we can go to the doctor if we get sick . . . it’s the best of the worst.” Apelbaum didn’t quite agree. Though she said she would to take the bikers’ demands seriously, a memo distributed March 15th repeated what she had already said on numerous occasions. “We are encouraged by the passion of our employees,” the memo read. “But a change in the cost structure would severely impair our ability to compete.” Once again, Arrow bikers went back to the drawing board.
On March 31st, three bikers marched into Arrow’s dispatch office. Gene Schmidt, a long time Arrow dispatcher with an arid sense of humor and perpetually rolled-up sleeves, was working that morning. Apelbaum wasn’t in, so they relayed a few “adjustments” to Schmidt.
Around midday, two of the bikers were called in for a meeting with Apelbaum. She once again rattled off the many reasons why Arrow couldn’t pay its messengers more, so they asked to see Arrow’s financial records. “We told them, ‘if you’re pleading poverty, show us the financial books to prove it,’” said Williams. “And she would say ‘over my dead body.’ And this is coming from the woman who bought [her accountant] Tom Krier a car last summer.”
Because of Apelbaum’s disingenuousness, the bikers had made several adjustments. They stopped delivering “house-runs,” or orders placed by Arrow that paid a flat rate of two dollars per job, no matter if the delivery went to the Loop or Lincoln Park; they stopped delivering “cash calls,” or orders placed by non-Arrow customers that paid a similarly low rate; and, because of over-hiring and long standby times, they created the “standby log,” a form that calculated the amount of time that bikers spent standing by. Next to the day’s total calculation, there was a line that stated “total amount of compensation for day’s standby time: $0.” Apelbaum began complaining about the influx of logs, and eventually gave bikers the option of leaving early if it was slow. While this wasn’t exactly a win for better pay, it was a sign that Apelbaum was willing to negotiate.
Over the next few weeks, she offered the company’s first proposal. A hiring freeze would be implemented; house account runs would be paid according to the regular rate table; cash calls would increase by two dollars, and each messenger with more than two years’ consecutive service would receive a 25-cent raise on each delivery. This was a huge win, minus the final concession, which neglected the bikers’ core issue and would only apply to one on-demand biker who’d participated in the negotiations—Steve Waters. (It would have also applied to a biker who hadn’t taken part in organizing, as well as a few route couriers, who from time to time work the on-demand board).
On April 21st, two bikers met with Apelbaum, and told her the group would accept everything but the two-year rule. She said it was all or nothing. Moreover, were they to accept Apelbaum’s prior offers, they would have to submit a letter stating that they would cease all future negotiations and direct action. Not surprisingly, they were infuriated by the ultimatum. Four days later, as one biker told me, “All hell broke loose.”
The response to Apelbaum’s ball-buster was a “no uniform day.” They had agreed, despite the reluctance of several Arrow bikers, to forgo the usual fluorescent vest, yellow helmet, black cargo pants and black Arrow jacket. “We wanted to show them that we could be perfectly reasonable any time they wanted us to be,” said Williams. “But if they wouldn’t deal with us, we could hit them hard.”
By 10 am, the majority of the on-demand crew was off the board. They had been lined up behind the office’s rear garage, alongside a chain-link fence that straddles an alley and a large grassy expanse of undeveloped land, for nearly 20 minutes when Apelbaum and Krier finally emerged. She suspended each messenger that wasn’t in uniform. She then suspended several more that were but chose not to cross the picket line.
Following the suspensions, the bike board was shut down. Arrow tried, once again, pushing work out to whomever it could, but orders were taken at a two hour delay. Arrow was in such bad shape that one of their bike dispatchers was told he could either get his bike and work, or go home. He chose the latter.
The bikers were allowed back to work the following day, permitting they were in uniform. But management subsequently began what Williams called “a campaign of harassment.” Twice a day, for two days, each biker was called in for a uniform inspection by Mark Apelbaum, Phyllis’ son. “You would be working in the middle of the day and have to drop everything and come into base to do a little spin-around for the boss,” said Williams.
During the following weeks, seven unfair labor practice complaints landed on Apelbaum’s desk. They stemmed from the company’s immediate reaction to the “no uniform day,” as well as the “campaign of harassment” that followed. Yet it wasn’t until late May, after the group sent a nasty letter to Apelbaum and Krier (Leylak had left the company after the uniform crackdown) that dialogue resumed. Calling clients and the media, the letter read, would be considered “a legitimate next step.”
The threats proved invaluable—or so the group eventually learned. During an employee meeting, Apelbaum called the group’s activities illegal and unprotected, according to Mark Jackson, who attended the meeting. But the tough talk didn’t last long. During the same meeting—only a few minutes later, in fact—she said that by the following Monday, all previously mentioned wage increases would be implemented: house account runs would be paid according to the regular rate table, cash calls would incur a two dollar increase and bikers with two-year seniority would see a .25 cent raise on all deliveries. The final raise, which bikers were still unhappy with, would be open for discussion in the future; a formal, signed concession for future direct action wouldn’t be required; and, perhaps the most unexpected victory, house account runs would not only be implemented for Arrow’s bike fleet, but for its 80-strong team of drivers. “That was a huge boon for us,” said Williams. “The fact that a small core group of a little organizing committee can get a raise for 100 workers is pretty significant. We didn’t get exactly what we wanted, but we consider it a victory.”
Perhaps the strangest twist to Apelbaum’s concession was her denial. According to Jackson, she wrapped up by telling bikers they were getting a raise “not because of the actions of a few bikers,” but because “the company felt it was the right thing to do.”
“That’s really funny to me,” he said. “It wasn’t because we kept pushing the issue or that we took action and kept organizing. Out of nowhere, from some nebulous place, it suddenly dawned on her that these were the right things to do. And they just happened to be the same things that we were negotiating.”
In mid-July, a small yellow flyer began circulating among messengers. It was an eight-square comic strip with the title “What Happened At Arrow?” Satirizing the initial meeting between Steve Waters and Apelbaum, an angry, devil-like Phyllis is screaming at Waters (“What?!! Raise! No Room! No Room! You Get It All!,” and “Unemployment, Wokers’Comp! Social Security! You Get It All!”), who responds with a simple “I am not here to debate or discuss with you.” The flyer also advertised a talk that a few of the organizers at Arrow were hosting at The New World Resource Center Bookstore, where Andrea Murphy, an IWW organizer, had recently set up the Chicago Couriers Union office.
The meeting wasn’t exactly a success—only about 20 couriers packed the cramped, makeshift backroom of the bookstore. They sat on fold-out chairs surrounded by ancient-looking IWW posters, bookshelves and a small table with pizza and coffee.
The first question had nothing to do with the success of Arrow organizers, but rather why there were no black messengers in attendance (besides the courier asking the question). A variety of answers ping-ponged from each side of the room: Latinos have meetings with Latinos, said one messenger; plenty of black couriers have been involved in organizing, but they weren’t there, replied another.
While the question harkened back to the Labor Notes dictum—that biker-organizers tend to be younger and whiter—the messenger chastised black route couriers at Arrow for not being more involved. There was a glimmer of hope in what he said: perhaps this was the victory that would spark a larger organizing campaign. The messengers in the room had, after all, not only gotten a raise, but made history.
A couple of weeks later, when I asked Murphy about the comment, she was dismissive of its relevance. The industrial organizing committee has always been a diverse group, she said. “And besides . . . If you can get people to work together, that’s a powerful thing. Can you imagine if every messenger turned their radio off at the same time? The collective power there would be awesome.”