updated 11/18/2004 10:17:40 AM ET 2004-11-18T15:17:40

A fledgling national union for pizza drivers is demanding better wages and training, saying the large chains have been taking advantage of them for years.

Its an effort that has attracted the attention of the Teamsters union, but the Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers, based in Hendersonville, has yet to organize its first shop.

A vote at a Domino's franchise in Lincoln, Neb., failed Tuesday night on a tie. But organizers expect a better result next week when Pizza Hut drivers vote at a store near Columbus, Ohio.

Tim Lockwood, treasurer of the pizza delivery union, said getting the first vote itself was a huge victory as the union started just a couple of years ago with a few drivers in an Internet chat room commiserating about unfair working conditions.

"It's sort of like the thing reached critical mass. We built a Web site and they came," said Lockwood, a pizza delivery driver who declined to identify his employer.

About 600 drivers nationwide have signed up for the free union, and he feels momentum gathering for more unionization votes.

"Despite the fact that we didn't take the vote, just that it occurred is a major hurdle," he said. "It's never happened before in the history of pizza delivery driving."

Lockwood said pizza drivers make $5.50 to $6 an hour, plus tips, and are reimbursed 50 to 75 cents per delivery — no matter how far it is. Even worse, he said, pizza delivery is annually ranked among the most dangerous professions.

"A lighted pizza sign on a car in a bad area says, `Look at me — I've got food, I've got cash and I'm unarmed,'" he said.

Lockwood said he envisions collective bargaining with the national pizza chains, forcing them to pay drivers a mileage reimbursement of 30 cents to 40 cents per mile, along with compensation for more expensive commercial driver's insurance. He also said drivers want to see concessions on safety issues, such as better training.

A spokeswoman for Pizza Hut, which is owned by the Louisville, Ky.-based fast-food giant Yum Brands Inc., said she had not heard of the unionization effort.

"It's not a real issue for us," spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said from Pizza Hut's Dallas headquarters. "We already work really hard to make sure all of our compensation is fair."

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's Pizza Inc. said it couldn't comment Wednesday on the unionization effort.

Matt Howard, a driver for a Pizza Hut in Sunbury, Ohio, found the union's site on the Internet. Now he's pushing for unionization for drivers at his shop in a vote next week, which will be run by the National Labor Relations Board.

First, though, he had to fend off a legal challenge from the owner of the franchise.

The 25-year-old said he's had his hours cut, and his wife — who also works at the store — fears retribution.

"The company keeps calling meetings to try to talk us out of the union," he said "They are trying to do everything they can to take away our right to vote."

Howard said he thinks the seven or eight drivers at the store will approve the union idea, even though he said the owners are stacking the vote with a few managers they are labeling as drivers.

Labor attorney Mark Potashnick, who is helping the union, said the effort is drawing attention from the Teamsters and other unions.

"I think once they get an election or two won and a collective bargaining agreement or two in place, they are going to be in a much better position to pick up momentum," he said.

Potashnick said the drivers can expect a great deal of resistance from the companies, especially if the effort starts to take hold.

"Whenever you have union organizing, it's amazing how many people get fired," he said. "It's even more amazing how many employees get intimidated into abandoning their union activities."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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