June 24, 2006

Chicago's First Bike Messenger Collective

by Scott Eden
RENE CUDAL WAS the last to quit. The Friday after Labor Day 2005 was the day he’d marked in his calendar, but he procrastinated all morning and afternoon, dreading the moment his boss would put two and two together. Finally the boss went home. Cudal called him that evening and gave him two weeks’ notice.

A bike messenger quitting isn’t so unusual—messengers will tell you they all develop a strategy to extract themselves from the job, which is defined by a high risk of bodily harm, low wages, and few or no benefits. Michael Carey, Cudal’s boss at On Time Courier, was a former messenger himself. But Carey, a big, block-shouldered man with a reputation as both a polished salesman and a hard-line intimidator, didn’t take Cudal’s news well. “What’s happening?” Cudal remembers him saying. “What are you doing? Starting your own messenger company?”

Cudal was in agony. “Well,” he said, “yes.”

One by one over the past three weeks, Cudal’s partners Jack McLaughlin, Josh Korby, and Mike Morell had resigned from On Time to get to work on their own company, 4 Star Courier Collective. There are more than half a dozen courier companies in Chicago run by former messengers, but 4 Star would be different: it would be worker-owned and -operated, the first messenger coop in Chicago and only the third in the U.S.

In an act of bravado Carey apparently hadn’t noticed, in August, before any of them had quit their old jobs, the 4 Star couriers sent out a press release explaining that they were striking out on their own because they were “fed up with the exploitative nature of most courier companies in Chicago.” They announced the “first annual” 4 Star bike messenger prom, preceded by a pedaling parade that offered tattooed young women in prom dresses and held in a building where the super was a former messenger. Around 200 people showed up, the party netted $700, and because almost everyone there was a courier the collective interpreted it as a vote of confidence from the “community.” Korby, a 28-year-old with a BFA from the Art Institute, anonymously told the Tribune, “We want to bring a personal side to the messenger industry. We’ll be the owners. We’ll care.”


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