Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Will Pizza Carry a Union Label?
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You probably like pizza. Just about everyone does. Or at least enough people to make the pizza industry a $32 billion-a-year business, selling about three billion pizzas annually from some 60,000 pizzerias - 17 percent of all U.S. restaurants.

If you're like most pizza fanciers, you usually get yours delivered. And if the drivers who deliver the pizza are like most others, their earnings are at or near the poverty level and their working conditions minimal, despite the robust state of the industry.

What the drivers need is a union, and finally they have one.

The Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers is being put together by a group of drivers in Tennessee who've signed up about 700 members around the country so far. Not many members - yet - but the potential is as great as the need.

Basically, the drivers are in much the same position as were workers in the distant past in so many other industries who finally turned to unionization as a way to secure decent pay and working conditions. Steelworkers, autoworkers, mine workers, dock workers - they and lots of others did it. So did waiters, waitresses, truck drivers and others in occupations more closely related to the work of those in the pizza industry.

Organized labor has been desperately seeking revitalization, primarily through organizing more workers. The pizza drivers could play an important role, possibly with help from the powerful Teamsters Union, a key leader in the efforts to increase labor's numbers.

Few groups of workers would seem more likely prospects for union organizers. Tim Lockwood, treasurer of the fledgling drivers' union, notes that drivers typically make no more than $5.50 to $6 an hour, plus tips and 50 to 75 cents per delivery. Most drivers use their own vehicles and must buy their own car insurance, as well as cover operational and maintenance costs estimated at 45 cents per mile.

What it amounts to, says Lockwood, is that "nearly every pizza corporation pushes the cost of operating and maintaining the fleets of delivery vehicles onto the drivers, offering only a modest token as reimbursement which does not come anywhere close to matching the true costs."

Some companies have begun to cut even further into their drivers' income by adding delivery charges to customers' bills - a tip reducer, or tip killer, for sure.

Meager and often dwindling income isn't the only serious problem. Traffic accidents and assaults by robbers - sometimes fatal assaults - are so frequent drivers' jobs are ranked among the country's most dangerous. And no wonder. As Lockwood says, drivers are routinely sent "into dangerous and poorly-lit neighborhoods carrying cash, food and a lighted neon sign on their car to announce their presence."

Organizers note that drivers have little choice but to accept whatever conditions employers impose on them. They're told, in effect, to take it or leave it and can be fired at any time for any reason. Labor laws theoretically provide them some protection, but the laws are barely enforced.

Lockwood and his fellow organizers say they are Republicans, a rarity among union advocates. But though their politics are conservative, says Lockwood, "We know that drivers can't be heard unless they unionize. We know that many improvements for drivers will benefit the owners as well. We want to work with the industry." He fits it into a conservative framework, asserting that what employers are doing is un-American because it "goes against the grain of America's working spirit when anyone pawns off their expenses onto others."

Beyond basic union rights that would give drivers job security and a voice in setting their terms of employment, the organizers are seeking higher pay, delivery reimbursements that would cover the drivers' actual costs, and an end to the growing practice of charging customers for deliveries. They also want training programs that would give drivers a greater awareness of potentially dangerous situations and how to avoid them, an end to late-night deliveries, and other employer actions to provide a truly safe working environment.

Lockwood figures employers could cover the extra costs by raising prices that have not been raised significantly in the past two decades: "We're still delivering the same $9.99 pizzas that we delivered in 1985." A side benefit could be to slow the "incredibly high" turnover rate among drivers and to bring professionalism to a job that's often "maligned as some minimum wage part-time job to get you through college until you get a 'real' job."

But the union's first task - and it's a big one - is to get drivers to join. Like the pioneering unions before them, the drivers' union faces heavy employer opposition and the reluctance of potential members to oppose their bosses. Being a pioneer is not easy, but as the other unions have proven over the years, it can be highly rewarding for the workers they represent.

Copyright 2005 Dick Meister