Bent Outta Shape

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

There had been a messy internal shake-up at the ILWU. Fred Pecker, the main ILWU liaison with Pro Mess couriers, had been ousted from office as a result of intramural warfare within Local 6.

The brouhaha started in 2000 when Pecker ran for a spot on the ILWU's International Executive Board. A gruff, no-bullshit sort who's popular with union rank-and-filers (including the messengers), Pecker did not enjoy the support of higher-ups in Local 6, who worked out of the East Bay office in Oakland.

The local's leadership first accused Pecker of campaigning for the international board on work time. Then, two weeks before the election, an anonymous hit mailer went out to Local 6 members. Pecker was accused of using union funds to take a luxury vacation in Mexico -- a charge calculated to infuriate blue-collar guys who work the docks. Pecker demanded an investigation into who sent the hit piece; the culprit, he felt, had to be someone with access to Local 6's database of members' names and addresses.

Pro Mess owner Joel Ritch views his struggle with the 
ILWU as a life-or-death battle.
Paolo Vescia
Pro Mess owner Joel Ritch views his struggle with the ILWU as a life-or-death battle.
Pro Mess owner Joel Ritch views his struggle with the 
ILWU as a life-or-death battle.
Paolo Vescia
Pro Mess owner Joel Ritch views his struggle with the ILWU as a life-or-death battle.

On Oct. 30, 2000, Pecker was suspended for the alleged improper campaigning, but refused to vacate the union hall at Ninth and Folsom. According to court documents, Local 6 Secretary-Treasurer Hector Valdivia was "threatened with violence" by Pecker when he tried to serve Pecker his suspension papers. Later that day, Pecker allegedly told an East Bay business agent he'd "kick his ass" if anybody tried to remove him from office. A judge granted a temporary restraining order barring Pecker from coming within 50 yards of his union hall or constituents.

But Pecker denied making any threats, and the restraining order was later lifted. A judge awarded Pecker his legal costs against three Local 6 officials. But the conflict was far from over.

In early 2001, the ILWU International Executive Board found Pecker guilty of campaigning on work time -- a charge disputed by both Pecker and much of Local 6's membership. He was suspended from office for the rest of the year, according to a union newsletter.

"There were meetings where we'd look at Jerry and Peter [other ILWU officials] and say, 'Where's Fred?'" remembers former DMS messenger Marc Gunther. "They'd say, 'Oh, he can't come ....'"

The two unionized messenger companies -- Pro Mess and Speedway -- drew mixed messages from the ILWU turmoil.

"I didn't know who to be talking to," says Speedway owner Lori O'Rourke. "Fred? Someone else? I said, "Get your internal issues worked out, then call me. I'm not going to be put in the middle of it.'"

"It's like a marriage," says Pro Mess' Ritch of the union's nascent relationship with the messengers. "You don't want to go off on a round-the-world trip by yourself the second after you get married, and leave your wife, right? That first year, you've gotta stick together to make the relationship work."

Pecker downplays the significance of his suspension. "Aside from that being a convenient thing for Joel Ritch to grab onto, I don't think it really has much to do with what has happened there," he responds. "It didn't fundamentally change the relationship between the union and any employer."

Pecker was reinstated last spring and the episode appears to have blown over. In fact, Pecker was elected secretary-treasurer of Local 6, and now sits on the International Executive Board as well. "We're a democratic organization, there was a struggle internally," he says. "The membership made a decision, and I'm still sittin' here."

Crucial forward motion had been lost, however.

"To be straight, it was a huge stumbling block," says Carey Dall, SFBMA's executive director. "Things were going along somewhat rockily, but they were going. And then there was this thing with Fred .... The union kinda faded away for a while, outside the rank-and-file people like Nato."

Then things got ugly at Pro Mess. A petition demanding that the union be prohibited from bargaining on behalf of Pro Mess workers began circulating at the company, and Pro Mess officially withdrew recognition of the ILWU last May. The ILWU cried foul, and filed yet another charge with the NLRB. Ritch defended the decertification petition, saying it was a spontaneous move by employees who just didn't want the union. But the NLRB subsequently found that Pro Mess had pressured employees to sign the petition.

In a repeat of what happened in 2000, Pro Mess settled shortly before the claim was scheduled to go before a judge, and agreed to come back to the bargaining table. Why didn't Ritch slug it out in court? "We chose not to ... because it would have cost $100,000," he says. "I would have been able to prove it, but I didn't have $100,000."

But things still are not going smoothly. Pecker says Pro Mess is now trying to return to square one in negotiations on a new contract.

"They've gone backwards on a whole host of issues," he says. "Like with health care -- they're cutting how much they'll pay, and how many people they'll cover." (Ritch declined comment on the negotiations "out of respect for [his] employees.")

The day Pro Mess canceled its recognition of the union, Nato Green left his job at the company and went to work full time as an ILWU organizer.

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