Bent Outta Shape

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

As more messengers signed union cards, Pro Mess began offering benefits it never had before, including paid time off and bonuses. "They were trying to show they could be generous and considerate without a union," says Green.

By the spring of 1999, the union drive had serious momentum. With the help of ILWU lawyers, 75 current and former messengers filed lawsuits against their employers for wage and overtime violations. Pro Mess and Ultra-Ex were among the companies targeted in the suits.

Employees at a number of courier companies went on a series of short strikes. On April 15 -- Tax Day, an insanely busy day for messenger firms -- there was a dramatic industrywide walkout. Green and many co-workers struck for an hour, and slowed down for the rest of the day. Workers at the big DMS messenger company struck the entire day, and at Ultra-Ex for half a day.

The union drive bogged down after ILWU official 
Fred Pecker (right) became embroiled in a nasty 
internal union battle.
Paolo Vescia
The union drive bogged down after ILWU official Fred Pecker (right) became embroiled in a nasty internal union battle.
SFBMA Executive Director Carey Dall calls courier 
companies "sweatshops on wheels."
Paolo Vescia
SFBMA Executive Director Carey Dall calls courier companies "sweatshops on wheels."

By the summer of '99, the messengers had their first victory -- they won a union election at a big messenger conglomerate, Ultra-Ex. In retaliation, the company sold off its unionized San Francisco division to one of its managers, who changed its name to Speedway.

Pro Mess, however, was becoming the Vietnam of union campaigns.

After Ultra-Ex went union, Pro Mess declared that it was reclassifying its employees as "independent contractors" -- making it illegal for them to unionize. Current employees were encouraged (but not required) to become independent contractors, but for new employees it was mandatory.

In response, the ILWU filed the first in a series of charges against Pro Mess with the National Labor Relations Board, which referees union elections. The NLRB investigated and later issued a complaint saying Pro Mess had offered employees bonuses if they stayed away from the union. The feds also claimed the company had tracked down drivers and interrogated them about the union on company time, and had instigated the independent contractor switchover due to the union organizing.

A union election was held at Pro Mess in fall '99, but the outcome was less than gratifying. When the ballots were counted, the ILWU had won by just two votes. A week later Pro Mess filed its own NLRB charges, alleging union misconduct and refusing to recognize the union. The ILWU counterattacked with more NLRB charges, accusing Pro Mess of threatening to fire pro-union workers.

In other words, the union drive at Pro Mess had plummeted into a bureaucratic, paper-pushing, name-calling hell.

"To let your organizing fall into the [NLRB] pit is death," wrote Fred Pecker, then ILWU Local 6's West Bay business agent, in a union bulletin. "The law is not in our favor, so if we rely solely on legal remedies, we'll hurt ourselves. We need to keep pressure on the company so they have to keep responding to us."

Nato Green was fired up to keep the pressure on. By this time he had become an active organizer at Pro Mess, and had developed a personal grudge against company owner Joel Ritch.

Both Green and Ritch are Jewish -- a fact that Green felt should have made Ritch more sympathetic to the plight of Pro Mess workers. But he wasn't, and Green viewed Ritch, the volunteer treasurer of the influential Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, as a hypocrite.

"It's outrageous that Joel Ritch has employees who are homeless, then he goes out and bills himself as a big philanthropist," says Green.

In February 2000, Green suggested picketing the Jewish Community Center to pressure Ritch to recognize the ILWU. Green made up a sign bearing one of his grandmother's favorite sayings: "It's a shonda to be a gonif, but it's a double shonda for a Jew to be a gonif." Translation: It's shameful to be a thief, but it's twice as shameful to be a Jewish thief. (Despite Green's hybrid Yiddish rhetoric, Ritch has never been accused or convicted of stealing.)

JCC members stopped to debate Green on the street, defending Ritch and criticizing the messengers' decision to target a Jewish organization -- all of which Green enjoyed very much. "It just reminded me of my family," he says.

Seemingly impervious to the strikes and picketing, Pro Mess continued to deny that a majority of its employees wanted anything to do with the ILWU.

But the NLRB had investigated the four charges filed by the ILWU, found them to have merit, and consolidated them into one complaint. The combined complaint was scheduled to go before an administrative law judge in June 2000, at the same time that the wage and overtime lawsuits against Pro Mess were nearing judgment. Pro Mess buckled.

"They had me by the balls," vents Ritch.

Pro Mess settled the lawsuits with a payment of "hundreds of thousands of dollars," according to Ritch, who refuses to be more specific. The company also agreed to recognize the union and hammer out a contract. The union then began making real headway: Grievance procedures were put in place and medical benefits increased. A verifiable pay structure was devised and Pro Mess started paying more overtime. Employees at Speedway made similar gains in their first contract.

The fight at Pro Mess, however, was far from over. In 2001, when it was time to renegotiate, ILWU officials say Pro Mess stalled and the original contract expired. But Pro Mess says it had good reason not to cooperate.

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