|Protesting newspaper carriers, of whom 80 percent are Vietnamese American, hold signs outside the San Jose Mercury News. Publisher Jay Harris later met some of their demands. Photo courtesy of Saigon USA.|
By Joseph Hong
John Hai Do, 27, is a newspaper home delivery carrier for the San Jose Mercury News. Like many of the other carriers for the newspaper, of whom 80 percent are Vietnamese American, Do is a non-union independent contractor holding two jobs to raise his family.
He starts his morning routes around 3 a.m., delivering papers seven days a week to some 250 homes around the San Jose area. After expenses, deductions drawn from customer complaints and customer payment defaults, Do estimates that he takes home around $600 a month, or about $6.00 an hour.
So when other carriers, many of whom are recent immigrants and elderly and whose only source of income is the delivery route, asked Do to represent the workers in their demand for higher wages and contract re-negotiatons, he didn’t hesitate.
Do helped lead a group of hundreds of carriers on a five day protest that disrupted operations in at least five of the 11 newspaper routes, before coming to agreements with the paper’s publisher Oct. 16.
According to the Mercury News, 38,000 out of 270,000 home delivery subscribers did not receive their paper last Sunday. At the height of the walk-out, at least 557 of the 1,080 carriers refused to do their routes—denying over 48,500 out of the over 200,000 weekday daily home subscribers their paper.
According to Do, the carriers have been asking for changes in their contract for years, sending letters and speaking to their supervisors. Though the managers were amenable to their complaints, nothing was done that satisfied the carriers, Do says.
The carriers had asked for a 20 percent increase in wage and requested two changes to their contracts: the end of collection and deductions of contractors’ pay due to delinquent subscriber bills and the end to charging carriers for redelivering a paper due to a customer complaint.
If a subscriber in a carrier’s route complained that they had not received their paper, according to the carrier’s contract, “the Mercury News may charge [the carrier] the reasonable cost of performing these services.” The “reasonable cost” at the Mercury News is $2.00 for a daily paper that costs 35 cents and $5.00 for a Sunday paper that costs $1.00 retail. Also, if a carrier fails to collect payment from a subscriber, the amount owed may be withheld from the carrier’s gross pay until it is collected.”
Carrier Minh Huynh recalls how her supervisor continued to send her to collect money for an increasing delinquent account for several weeks even after she had informed the supervisor that the person who had owed the money was deceased. The amount that was delinquent was withheld from her pay.
After mounting pressure and increased disruption in customer service, Mercury News publisher Jay Harris met with the carriers Oct.16, and issued letters with changes to their contract effective immediately: carriers will not be asked to collect subscription payments from any additional customers; that they will no longer be charged when customers request credit for a missed newspaper delivery; and that carriers receive a 12 percent increase retroactive to the beginning of October.
On a “fact sheet” released last Friday by the Mercury News, Harris is quoted as saying, “I respect and admire our carrier force. I believe they brought some legitimate concerns to our attention. We addressed the most significant of those with the changes we instituted at the start of the week. In the coming weeks, we will examine and address the remaining issues that were brought to our attention. We are committed to rebuilding our communication and relationship with our contract carriers.”
However, the carriers did not immediately agree to these three changes by Harris and did not begin to make deliveries on their routes again till late Friday morning.
The main reason for the carriers’ return, according to Do, is the newspaper’s agreement to a fourth condition that the carriers wanted, namely that there be no retaliatory actions against the carriers and that four carriers who had their contracts terminated after walking out have their contracts reinstated.
Do says that the dispute could have been avoided if carrier concerns and complaints had been addressed and not “just thrown in the garbage by our supervisors.”
One carrier who requested anonymity says, “The supervisors would smile like a flower and say ‘okay’ but nothing happened.”
All of the carrier representatives hope to join an organized labor union, and be less susceptible to future unfair labor demands. However, their status as independent contractors is a major hindrance to this goal.