Bike messengers in S.F. file lawsuit, want union

By Eric Young
Sacramento Bee, April 9, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO -- Manuel "Rak" Affonso has been a bike messenger for six years on this city's frantic downtown streets, and he's got the war stories to prove it.

He smiles when he recounts tales of near misses by buses, road "rashes" and long hours peddling in the rain. He describes every day as a race against time and a test of stamina.

Now, according to Affonso and several of the city's messengers, their own employers are contributing to the tough working conditions. A group of more than 50 bike messengers sued three delivery companies Thursday, alleging deliberate miscalculation of overtime, failure to pay mileage and compensation and charging employees for use of equipment needed for work -- charges the companies deny.

The suit is part of a broader campaign by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to bring the city's 350 bike messengers and 1,000 vehicle delivery workers into its fold.

A successful drive in San Francisco would be a coup for ILWU because few messengers in the country are represented by a union, organizers said.

San Francisco's bike messengers are among the city's most colorful labor force. A youngish group, they shuttle papers and boxes from skyscraper to skyscraper by zipping down the city's steep hills and dodging double-parked cars with the alacrity of gazelles. Outfitted in anything from biking shorts to T-shirts, the helmeted group carry large shoulder sacks and tote walkie-talkies that crackle orders from dispatchers.

In court papers filed in connection with Thursday's lawsuit, the messengers say their commission-based income is based on rates so complex that they can't always be sure what they are owed. They also allege that overtime pay should not be based on minimum wage, but rather on a sliding average that increases when messengers have made a high number of daily deliveries.

Finally, they say, they are fed up with having to dig into their own pockets to pay for bike maintenance.

The frustrations described in the suit show why some messengers want union representation.

"Without a union, we don't have a say in what's done," said Affonso.

But the companies defended their employment practices.

"We totally deny these allegations, and we're going to vigorously defend against them," said Joel Ritch of Professional Messenger, which was named in the suit along with Dispatch Management Services and UltraEx.

Ritch said his company listens to employee concerns.

"Our company spends a tremendous amount of time with employees with regular meetings. This (lawsuit) has kind of caught us a little off guard," he said.

Bike messenger company representatives said they offer competitive pay, health and dental insurance and retirement packages that are popular among the majority of their workers.

"It's a great job, and they have the freedom to do something that they enjoy and in which they take great pride," said Tom Finlay, road manager for Dispatch Management Services.

But union reps insist that they are building momentum toward an organizing vote, despite the high turnover in the industry.

"No doubt there is high turnover," said Peter Olney, ILWU director of organizing. "But there is a core of veteran workers who are skilled, and they are important to the industry because they train the new workers. If they unionize, employees beware."

Seeking to keep their effort in the public eye, the ILWU has scheduled a rally for messengers next Thursday in the heart of downtown.

No similar organizing effort is under way in Sacramento, according to messenger companies. But one owner said he would welcome it.

"You would get things more standardized. . . . Union people tend to be better. As an employer, I wouldn't oppose (a union)," said Mark Gebhardt, president of Egbok Professional Couriers in Sacramento.

Gebhardt, who has six bicycle messengers, estimates there are about 40 bikers that work independently and for courier companies in Sacramento.

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