Bent Outta Shape

San Francisco bike messengers hit some nasty economic potholes as they struggle to unionize

The messenger swigging beer from the paper bag interrupts and asks dreamily: "Is the SFBMA really moving forward to become a real union?"

There are a few beats of silence, during which a flicker of exasperation passes across the faces of nearly all of the elected SFBMA officers.

"There might be some confusion about the ILWU," patiently explains SFBMA Treasurer "Nellie" Nelson, a 31-year-old with girlish bangs falling across her forehead. "They're a bargaining agent. The SFBMA is too diverse of an agent to bargain on your behalf ...."

Messengers gather downtown to rest, eat, and 
maybe smoke a little dope.
Paolo Vescia
Messengers gather downtown to rest, eat, and maybe smoke a little dope.
SFBMA Treasurer "Nellie" Nelson says it's 
"surprisingly hard" to get messengers to take time off 
work to organize.
Paolo Vescia
SFBMA Treasurer "Nellie" Nelson says it's "surprisingly hard" to get messengers to take time off work to organize.

"I know that," the messenger with the beer says quietly.

"Well, what's your point then?" snaps Carey Dall.

When the union drive began in 1998, it had real juice. By 2000, the messengers had unionized two big San Francisco companies -- Ultra-Ex and Professional Messenger. Tag prices rose slightly not only at those firms but also at the 30 or so nonunion shops in the city.

But the economy abruptly tanked and the organizing effort lost steam. Dot-coms went under, the number of tags plummeted, messenger companies folded, and those still standing had less work to go around. Management stiffened its resistance to the ILWU; employees were less inclined to get out of line.

Though the union drive is still officially under way, no more local companies have been unionized since 2000. And the ILWU has yet to negotiate new contracts with the two unionized firms.

The messengers who ran the SFBMA during the early years of the organizing drive are showing signs of burnout. And that goes double for Damon Votour.

"The point is getting lost, and momentum is getting lost," he snarls in an attempt to steer the conversation back to his valedictory remarks. "If anyone is so spineless that they can't stand up and take on their employer, you're letting yourself down, and your co-workers down.

"That is bullshit. If you're too scared, then you deserve what you get."

The union campaign began with a bang. Messengers organized the first "Messenger Appreciation Day," or "10/9 Day," on Oct. 9, 1998. ("10/9" in messenger radio code means "Say again" or "What?")

Thanks to the ILWU's considerable political clout, then-Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano gave the day official city recognition. And both Ammiano and Mayor Willie Brown spoke out in support of the messengers' fight for better working conditions.

Pro-union messengers passed around union sign-up cards at major courier companies. SFBMA meetings became hotbeds of organizing activity. And right off the bat, there were problems.

Like the car couriers.

Under federal labor law, bike messengers who want to be represented by a union can't exclude car or foot messengers from their union drive. In order to organize the industry, the bike people would have to get the car folks on board. The challenge was to somehow bridge the traditional differences and animosities between the two messenger tribes.

Local bike messengers tend to be single white males in their late 20s or early 30s. They live in big cities like San Francisco and Oakland. Car messengers are often older minorities -- Mexicans, Nicaraguans, and Indian Sikhs, for instance -- who hail from distant suburbs like Antioch or Tracy. Unlike the bike messengers, drivers tend to be lone wolves. They don't have an organization like the SFBMA and don't drink beer with each other after work -- much less with bike messengers. While most bike riders don't have families, mortgages, or car payments, most car couriers do. And so the drivers have more to lose by pushing their luck with management.

Nato Green wasn't your typical driver.

In 1998, when the union crusade was launched, Green was jobless, having gotten canned from Noah's Bagels in San Francisco, where he tried to organize his fellow schmear servers.

"I was looking for a new place to plug in," says Green, 26, whose wide green eyes have an unsettling tendency to lock onto whomever he is speaking to, and not let go.

Green (his first name is a nickname for Nathaniel) brags that he is a "classic Red diaper baby" -- that is, a child of left-wing parents. His father headed the Bay Area Radical Teachers Organizing Committee, which promoted a lefty curriculum. Both his dad and mom were active in the San Francisco teachers' union.

Nato Green is obsessed with labor unions the way most guys his age are obsessed with PlayStation 2 or collecting vintage vinyl. When he learned of the ILWU organizing drive, he wanted a piece of the action. But, as an asthmatic and self-described physical wreck, he wasn't much good at riding a bike all day long. So in 1999, Green took a job as a car courier for Professional Messenger, one of the city's largest courier outfits, and began making deliveries around the Bay Area.

One day, another driver approached him with a union card, and he signed it.

At the time, he says, many couriers were outraged at the way Pro Mess, as it's known in the industry, made out their paychecks and displayed their cut of the tags. The actual amounts customers paid per tag were kept secret, so messengers couldn't do the math to make sure they were getting paid properly. Also, their cuts fluctuated, seemingly at random and never with any explanation.

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