Bent Outta Shape

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

At 42, Joel Ritch still has the look of a purposely disheveled prep-schooler. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, his brown hair a bit tousled and his casual business attire slouchy. He's a dyed-in-the-wool Deadhead who's been to more than 75 shows (although, he quickly adds, that number includes Jerry Garcia Band shows).

As befits a hard-core fan of the group that sang, "Lotta poor men got to walk the line just to pay his union dues," Ritch professes to have nothing against unions. "I got my undergrad degree in labor relations!" he says. (To be exact, it was a bachelor of commerce degree, with a focus on organizational behavior, from the University of British Columbia.)

He says he tried to convert his employees into independent contractors not to blunt the ILWU drive but because he actually thought the messengers would solicit work from multiple companies, and be better off for it. "I was surprised when few of them did," he says. The bennies he gave his employees when the ILWU campaign began had nothing to do with union agitation, he insists. "I had no idea my employees wanted a union," he says.

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.

In any case, it's clear that Pro Mess has been a thorn in the side of the longshoremen's union since day one. Ritch hired Littler Mendelson, a San Francisco-based law firm notorious in labor circles for its long history of union-busting activities, to help him hold off the ILWU onslaught. Then Pro Mess fought the union every step of the way.

Pro Mess is a survivor in an industry where companies spawn and die like fruit flies. Entry barriers are low (all you need is a few phones, radios, and bikes and/or cars, and you're in business). Competition is fierce and profit margins slim. But Ritch, who moved to San Francisco from his native Canada in 1986 to start an air-freight business, has managed to hang in through several industry shake-ups.

Pro Mess has 80 employees in the Bay Area and more in Los Angeles. Besides its traditional courier and air-freight businesses, it operates a same-day delivery service, a legal services business, and some other companies' mail rooms.

Ritch is an animated man, prone to little flourishes of extravagance. In Pro Mess' remarkably depressing offices on Cesar Chavez Street, where discarded computer parts serve as the only decorations in the fluorescently lit rooms, Ritch's office walls are painted a buttery yellow and hung with pictures of his fairy-tale wedding at the Palace Hotel. Alongside the photos is an old San Francisco Business Timesarticle praising his entrepreneurial acumen.

Ritch is obviously a guy who doesn't like to lose. He believes the outcome of his fierce battle with the ILWU may determine his company's survival. After talking with him awhile you notice that his fingernails are chewed to the quick.

"For the union to work, you have to organize everybody," he says. "And you can't unionize this industry. It's unbelievably fragmented. There's no geographical boundaries. There's a transient work force. People don't make this a career."

There's truth in what he says.

"There's a saying among bike messengers," says former SFBMA Executive Director Bernie Corace: "Messenger companies are like underwear. If you don't change them often enough they start to stink."

Many messengers switch companies every year or so. "People get pent up because of the [job] pressures, and they take it out on each other," says Carey Dall. "You get personality clashes between messengers and dispatchers, messengers and messengers .... What they get from moving on is momentary psychological relief."

Thanks to the soured economy, says Ritch, the messenger industry is fighting for its life. Five years ago, when thousands of dot-coms invaded San Francisco, messenger companies were swimming in tags. But when the dot-coms went off the cliff, no other businesses replaced them, and tag volume plunged. Meanwhile, Ritch says, increasing reliance on e-mail lessened the need for messengers. Design and advertising firms that used to hire couriers can now send their specs digitally for free. Since 2000, half of the Bay Area's messenger companies have folded. Ritch says his own business is off 50 percent since 1999.

At the same time tags were dropping off, workers' comp insurance rates were soaring, rising 50 percent in the last three years.

The implications of all this are not good for the ILWU drive.

Speedway, the city's other unionized messenger company, is still operating under its original one-year union contract, finalized in 2000. That means its workers haven't received any pay raises or other improvements in three years.

According to Pecker, Speedway employees are sympathetic to the company's financial problems, and haven't pressed for a new contract. (The ILWU shop steward at Speedway, Howard Williams, refuses to comment on the delay in negotiations. Speedway owner O'Rourke blames the union for not being "gung-ho.")

Ritch insists his firm is not in dire straits despite the alarming decline in tags. "We will survive," he likes to repeat, Gloria Gaynor-style. Indeed, Pro Mess bought out a competitor, Silver Bullet, last May.

While giving a tour of the Pro Mess offices, Ritch pauses in the break room to point out ILWU literature he is required by law to post. A "Labor Notes" announcement, penned by his old employee Nato Green, is pinned to a bulletin board across from the candy machine. It's an update on Pro Mess contract negotiations, and, reading it to himself, Ritch's face is impassive. Then he comes to a line that urges his employees to "Squeeze the Weasel."

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