Telegraph boys were the first Uber drivers

Monday, December 18, 2017
by Cameron Shelley

I have been reading "Bike battles" by James Longhurst of the University of Wisconsin.  The book is a review of the history of cycling in the United Stastes, with particular emphasis on the cultural and legal aspects of how bicycles have been granted (or not) access to public roadways.

I may have more to say about this interesting book later.  However, a passage on telegraph boys in the early 20th century struck me (pp. 112ff). 

Longhurst notes that bicycles were particularly popular with telegraph boys, that is, young men who were employed by telegraphy companies to deliver messages around towns and cities.  These youths quickly become notorious for their aggressiveness, riding on sidewalks, colliding with pedestrians and cars, etc.

One result was a spate of lawsuits claiming damages from the resulting collisions.  Telegraph companies preferred to blame the boys for such things in order to avoid paying out.  Legally, this tactic depended on representing the boys as independent contractors instead of company employees:

Therefore, company lawyers often argued for the independence and temporary status of the bicycle messengers to avoid liability.

I am reminded of current disputes over the status of Uber drivers.  Uber insists that they are independent contractors and not employees.  In that way, Uber can avoid many of the costs associated with having employees, such as benefits, vacation, insurance, etc.

Uber recently lost a case in Britain, in which a tribunal ruled that drivers with Uber are not independent contractors, and are thus owed a minimum wage and paid vacation. 

Longhurst does not say much about how this issue turned out for the telegraph boys.  In any event, the comparison is interesting and an affirmation that history has a tendency to repeat, even if we don't always notice.