Unions woo capital's bike couriers: Rival groups are competing for the organisation of dispatch riders in an effort to improve pay and conditions

Article from The Guardian April 9, 1990 about the libertarian direct action union the Despatch Industry Workers Union.

Two rival trade union organisations are competing to recruit members in the dispatch riding industry, amid allegations of dangerous conditions and low pay.

There are estimated to be 20,000 bicycle and motorcycle dispatch couriers in London and the South-east, most of whom are self-employed and paid by the journey, but two groups have been formed in an attempt to force employers to provide better conditions.

The Dispatch Industry Workers Union was established more than a year ago by riders intent on direct industrial action. Fearing that employers would sack couriers for union membership, its leaders have largely remained anonymous. So far it claims a membership of around 80. In a statement of its aims this year the union said: 'The only way to get justice is by strong working-class organisation.'

The second union organisation is the London Couriers Branch of the Transport and General Workers' Union, set up by Wynne Hughes, a dispatch rider, in October. So far just over 15 couriers have joined.

'We are trying to get motorcycle, bicycle, and van couriers into the union,' said Mr Hughes, aged 25, who has been a dispatch rider since graduating from London University.

'We hope to standardise employment practices so we can enter into negotiation about working conditions.' On a good day bicycle couriers can earn up to Pounds 50, says Mr Hughes.

'But you pay a lot for the upkeep of your bike.'

There were a lot of injuries. Two cycle couriers were known to have been killed in central London last year, he said, but some claim eight died.

'The DIWU is part of the direct action movement,' Mr Hughes said. 'They refuse to negotiate with companies.'

In an open letter to TGWU couriers in January, the DIWU attacked its rival: 'We suspect that in future dispatch industry bosses will offer the TGWU some closed shop deals simply to keep a militant union like the DIWU out. In return the TGWU will be expected to prevent industrial action.'

Peter Flemming, a director of West One Couriers, says the problem of forming a union has been compounded by competition between companies. His company, which employs motorcycle riders and van drivers, provides holiday pay, but those who fail to turn up for work without a valid excuse are charged Pounds 34.50 radio equipment hire a week. 'We penalise riders who don't put in a full week,' Mr Flemming said.

'If someone doesn't turn up he would lose a circuit fee.'

Exceptionally hardworking motorcycle couriers could earn up to Pounds 550 a week.

A fifth of his couriers earned more than Pounds 350. 'We are always aware of safety. On windy days we do not let any bikes out of town.'