11. Worst One

In December 1989 we had three union members working for West One despatch when the bosses decided to double the radio fee from £17.25 per week to £34.50. The radio fee is a deduction from your wages if you don’t work a full week without notice.

Adam: We decided to organise a protest meeting in Queen Square, Holborn. We hand wrote a leaflet, photocopied about thirty and gave them to riders, or left copies on their bikes. Only a dozen or so riders showed up, and somebody must have passed a leaflet onto management because one of the bosses turned up, a particularly slimy creature called Jeffrey Ritterband. Alan also came along, partly to give a pro-union viewpoint but also to be able to talk to the bosses without fear, as he was working at another firm. Anyway, Ritterband sidled up and tried to get us all talking and he repeatedly asked us who the organiser was and what our names and call signs were etc. He tried to present himself as a reasonable person to work for then blurted out, “i’m against unions and against communism “. The little jerk probably fancied himself as a Ronald Reagan figure fighting to save the civilised world from the Reds. After more discussions he agreed, to our surprise, that we had a fair case and he backed down on the radio fees. So we had won! Ritterband then got into his company van and drove off presumably thinking he had saved mankind from the revolting peasants.

At this point Alan saw the opportunity and announced “Now he’s gone we can have a proper meeting.” Subsequently we had a very constructive meeting and took names and addresses of everyone present, what we hoped would be the basis of a future work place branch. These events were summarised in the next issue of Despatches along with the conclusion that is was a victory for the workers.

Then surprise, surprise, in March, West One decided to reintroduce the double radio fee. Whether they did this to throw down the gauntlet to the DIWU is a matter for speculation, hut we think they did. By this time the DIWU had five members at West One: John, Dennis, Rajiv, Cohn and Adam. We decided to call an early morning protest meeting for West One riders at Conway Hall on the 21st March, produced a professional looking leaflet this time, and distributed them as best we could. Thirty riders showed up. Five people volunteered to do ‘security’ on the door in case the bosses tried to disrupt the meeting. Sure enough, Ritterband and a crony showed up again and expected to be let in to intimidate the riders. They were very miffed when the people on the door refused them entry. They left and Alan chaired the meeting and did a brilliant job. DIWU members sat with the crowd so as not to be singled out too easily by grasses. The meeting was very good but everyone agreed we needed more people and also we agreed a list of improvements that was to be sent to management. The plan was to have another meeting on 6th April and get more riders along. In the meantime the list of desired improvements in pay and conditions would be sent to Ritterband and he would be invited to reply.

Adam: On the evening before the crunch meeting, the West One controllers were announcing over the air things like, “Tomorrow will be really. busy,” ‘We want everyone at work bright and early.” They were obviously trying to persuade people not to go to the meeting. My controller asked me directly if I was going, I replied “maybe," although in fact wild horses could not have dragged me away from it.

On 6th April Ritterband did not show up even though he had been invited this time. More worrying was that there were only about 30 West One riders present. There were lots of new faces as many riders from the first meeting had failed to show up. The meeting started and we decided that Alan would phone Ritterband and ask why he was not attending. Alan did this and Ritterband replied he was too busy. This got everyone’s back up, he was ignoring us. It was suggested that we ride round and tell more riders, then meet at the office at one o’clock, and in the meantime jam the radios for 10 minutes, just to show we were serious. This idea was enthusiastically received and after a unanimous vote all trooped out into Red Lion Square and switched our radios to transmit, then held them next to noisy Honda CXs which were revving like crazy. Some people turned on to “squelch” on their radios and held them next to other transmitting radios. This made it impossible for other riders to communicate with the controllers, who could only hear interference and Honda CX’s. Everyone had a right good laugh.

For most people this was undoubtedly their first experience of industrial action and acting collectively in the individualistic world of despatch riding. At the time West One had about seven bike channels and we managed to block six of them. We heard later, from another source, that the management went absolutely apeshit. After fifteen minutes people started drifting away, as had been agreed. A few of us went to a nearby cafe, and by chance saw a very serious looking Ritterband arriving at Red Lion Square with a car full of the ‘heavy mob’. One of our comrades went to watch what they got up to and saw Ritterband talking intimately with two riders who had remained in the square. We suspected these two were grasses. One of those riders/grasses, David Leadbetter, was involved in the Socialist Organiser group. Socialist Organiser was involved in entryist politics, trying to recruit couriers to the TGWU. To put it another way the TGWU was, unfortunately, a rival to the DIWU as mentioned previously. We now suspect that the Socialist Organiser/TGWU gave information against the DIWU in an attempt to bring about our downfall. We considered tracking down David Leadbetter with these accusations, but nothing’s come of it, yet.

Anyway, at one o’clock riders started assembling outside the West One office in Caledonian Road. Some riders had bottled it and we had lost a certain amount of momentum. We were down to fifteen people, plus John, Alan and Derek, from the DIWU. Some people went in for their wages (it was Friday) and came out alright. Gary went in for his and was asked if he supported the scrapping of the radio fee. He said he did and was sacked. He had worked for West One on and off for eight years. Likewise, Len went in for his and was sacked. He had worked for West One for five years continuously. Len and Gary seemed to have been sacked just to set an ‘example’. Other people got their wages then Adam went in...

Adam: Ritterband told me to hand in my radio as I was sacked. I refused until I had received my week-in-hand money. I went outside where the assembled riders were discussing what to do next. After a while Ritterband came out, with a smirk on his face, and tried to verbally pressurise riders not to cause trouble ‘or else'. Some of us argued back and reiterated the riders many grievances. Ritterband gave various promises - hollow as it turned out - to improve pay and conditions. It was a shit situation for us, the union had been defeated. The only light relief was when a wasp flew in amongst us as we were arguing with Ritterhand. He got in a right flap and shouted, ‘look out! There's a wasp!” We just stood still and someone said, “we're not afraid of wasps." Ritterband looked a right wanker. After further discussions amongst ourselves, the three of us who were sacked, went off to other courier firms that afternoon and got new jobs straight away. The next working day, at 6 am, I got a knock at my front door and there was a bailiff from Peter Mercadante and Co. representing West One with a high court injunction which demanded that I return their radio immediately or I would be fined, go to prison etc etc. Ritterband must have been very frightened that we would jam the radios again, because it must be quite a palaver to get an injunction like that.

The temporary industrial muscle we had at West One had vanished, so Gary and Len were encouraged by us to pursue a legal case of unfair dismissal because they had worked at West One for more than two years. The South Islington Law Centre said they would be happy to handle the cases for the DIWU for free. However, both Gary and Len didn’t want to make a name for themselves (i.e. get blacklisted) and didn’t want to take time off sorting it out and going to court, so they didn’t pursue it.

After the dispute West One returned the radio fee back to its original level. The riders also noted that the controllers treated them with kid gloves, they must have been frightened of ‘rider power’ resurfacing again. So in some respects the dispute was not a total disaster. However, from a union point of view it is completely unacceptable that anyone should get the sack for industrial activity. This dispute taught the DIWU that ‘No Victimisation’ has got to be the top priority before any sensible discussions on pay and conditions can take place. In the course of the dispute we had collected some sixty names and addresses of West One riders. We then took the liberty of inviting all these people to join/start a West One DIWU branch at a meeting on May 9th. Only the original five members showed. We sent out more letters and even did home visits, but still nobody new joined. This was a very great disappointment. Lastly on the subject of West One, Dennis, a union member and an excellent and outspoken activist during the dispute, had managed to see his personnel file at work. It had been marked on top ‘Union?’, but luckily he had not been sacked. A few months later he went abroad then came back to London. He went for a job at West One and got it. We asked him “Didn’t they recognise you, Dennis?” he replied that he never took his helmet off during the interview and never takes it off when he goes to the office for his wages!

Note: Eight years later, in 1998, a friend in the West One office told us that the DIWU dispute still gets mentioned occasionally - and Ritterband appears to give a little shudder!