Strike While the Iron Is Hot

Bike messengers organizing for April 15 walkout

By Matt Smith
SF Weekly, March 24, 1999

Imagine this coming tax day not as death’s dreary counterpart, but as a delightful springtime street pageant filled with amazing sights. Like herds of slate-suited bankers trundling through the Financial District, forced to carry their own tax returns to the post office. Or harried tax lawyers with their slacks caught in bicycle chains as they madly dash to the IRS offices on Golden Gate Avenue.

Imagine, in other words, if April 15 dawns to find that all of the city's bicycle messengers have gone out on strike.

Emboldened by the success of a brief walkout on March 12 at the San Francisco office of Dispatch Management Service (DMS) -- the city’s largest delivery service -- messengers around the city are preparing for what may become a mass work stoppage on tax day. A strike on any business day would be vexing for a city as dependent on messengers for its daily commerce as San Francisco. But a strike on tax day would be downright maddening.

In keeping with their on-the-edge reputation for making things up as they go along, the messengers have not yet agreed if they will really strike on April 15, or just hold some sort of pro-labor-union protest rally instead.

Still, events of the past few months indicate that the messengers are serious about organizing, and perhaps adding to San Francisco's history as the birth-place of national labor movements. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) last October agreed to help organize the messengers. The union is now providing office space to the home-grown San Francisco Bicycle Messenger Association, and stepped in to speak with management during the brief March 12 messenger walkout, an action that ultimately led DMS to reinstate an employee who fellow messengers say was fired for letting his pro-union views be known.

The ILWU is also working with the messenger organizers as they contemplate some form of tax-day action.

The union hopes to eventually organize all of the Bay Area's couriers -- both bicycle and motorized -- and help them negotiate an industrywide collective bargaining agreement with the region's dozens of messenger companies.

It's still far from clear how successful the effort will be. The messenger companies appear to be readying for a stiff fight against unionization. DMS, a national delivery conglomerate, earlier this month rejected a request for union recognition, apparently charging that DMS messengers were coerced into signing a union petition.

"They sent us a letter saying, "I doubt you represent an uncoerced majority of our employees," " says Peter Olney, the ILWU's director of organizing. Tom Finlay, the DMS director in San Francisco, did not respond to requests for comment.

But other company reps contacted by SF Weekly were ready with the kind of management-side fighting words that have marked labor disputes for decades.

"When people spend their days contemplating taking work actions -- demanding this, demanding that -- they are not concentrating on providing the highest level of service to our customers," says DMS manager Greg Austin. "Talking about these issues gets in the way of their job."

Adds Sal Grassia, CEO of Ultra-X messenger service: "I think the days of the union are gone. There's no need for them nowadays."

Besides the aggressive posture of the messenger companies, bike couriers also have to contend with the scattered nature of their own ranks. San Francisco's messenger scene is populated by around 80 large, medium, and small operations, and the city's 350, independent-minded messengers don't tend to work in one job for more than a year or so.

Corralling all these workers and all these companies into a single contract presents an organizing challenge, Olney acknowledges. "I view this as a long-term campaign," Olney says. "It's going to take a number of years to pull this thing together."

As it stands, messengers have been talking union for years, with nothing to show for it. A 1993 messenger organizing drive in Portland, Ore., failed.

But the tide may be turning, Olney says. The March 12 "ride-out" at DMS, where employees walked off the job for three hours, was an unprecedented event that has bolstered the convictions of some riders, Olney says. "This was a work stoppage over the unjust termination of a messenger who was an open advocate of the union," he says. "Those kind of activities will accelerate up to April 15."

The need for a union is clear, Olney says. Messengers make as little as $300 a week, and are paid on a piecework basis -- if riders get sick, injured, or suffer a mechanical breakdown, they don't get paid. While some companies provide limited job benefits such as health insurance, they tend to be the exception. And illegal labor practices, such as firing pro-union employees, are common, Olney claims.

The union soon plans to file an unfair labor practices lawsuit against some of the companies, Olney says, but he will not provide details. And around 20 San Francisco Bicycle Messenger Association shop stewards met at the ILWU's SOMA headquarters on March 16, plotting the possible labor action for April 15. On the street, courier radios are buzzing with talk of a possible massive ride-out.

Still, some riders seem to be wavering on whether they would support a tax-day strike. A beefy messenger who calls himself Bok Choy pondered the question while awaiting a tag last week at "The Wall," the bicycle messenger hangout in front of the Citibank head-quarters. He worried that the mass ride-out might go ahead without specific enough demands.

"It would have to be done correctly," he said.

And Andy, a rangy, lean courier at Professional Messenger, is skeptical about whether a work stoppage will ever get off the ground. People have been talking about a strike for years, he says, and the April 15 idea may be no different.

"That would be the day to do it, though," he says. They've got us all in agreement on that."

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