Bent Outta Shape

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

"That's bullshit," he bursts out. Then he mutters, "And I'm supposed to go home to my wife and family ...."

Asked later why he was so upset, he answers: "Because I'm obviously supposed to be the weasel. And what you do with a weasel is you put your hands around its neck, and you strangle it, and that's how you kill it."


Natasha Dedrick was a rookie bike messenger at DMS in 1999. A petite brunette with a loud mouth, Dedrick, then 24, was boiling mad at her working conditions.

Squeezing the Weasel: Union organizer Nato Green 
went after Professional Messenger's owner in a very 
personal way.
Paolo Vescia
Squeezing the Weasel: Union organizer Nato Green went after Professional Messenger's owner in a very personal way.
Messenger Joel Metz logs a tag on a 
cartoon-decorated clipboard.
Paolo Vescia
Messenger Joel Metz logs a tag on a cartoon-decorated clipboard.

"You were on 10 to 11 hours a day, and you wouldn't necessarily get a lunch break," she remembers. There was no sick pay. "Oftentimes you were listening to a condescending dispatcher. Like, they'd be nasty, and say things to you like, 'Oh duh,' when you'd ask a question."

At the time, DMS driver Marc Gunther was trying to organize colleagues to join the ILWU. As a way of rallying them, Gunther planned a post-work barbecue in the company parking lot.

"It just didn't seem that appealing," says Dedrick. "Then people went, but nothing really came out of it."

She was similarly unimpressed with the SFBMA, which she saw as being more interested in partying than in the gritty work of unionizing. Despite the efforts of Gunther and other organizers, Dedrick felt the ILWU was going nowhere fast at DMS.

"I found that, far from galvanizing activity ... the union drive was instead used as a reason to be patient," Dedrick wrote in a zine she later published about her DMS experiences. "While many messengers were ready to rock-and-roll, there were always enough whom [sic] argued that we should be reasonable and wait for the company to "go union.'"

With fellow DMS employee Aaron Hackett, Dedrick decided to ignore the union and take a more radical approach to bettering conditions at DMS. They got hold of an employee phone list and began calling drivers at home.

"We didn't get much driver involvement," she admits. "Bikes are largely twentysomething or thirtysomething white men. And a lot of the drivers at DMS were in their late 30s, 40s, even older; Latino, black, from Nicaragua, Brazil ... a lot of automatic things didn't unite us."

Dedrick and Hackett had more success with bike messengers. With their punk rock, intensely individualistic ethic, few had much patience for something as time-consuming and bureaucratic as a union drive. But many liked the balls-out, direct-action approach Dedrick and Hackett proposed.

"We were like, 'OK, screw this,'" says Dedrick. "We as messengers had power."

"Aaron and Natasha represented a portion of the messenger industry," says Joel Metz, a San Francisco messenger who runs the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations Web site (www.messengers.org). "Most people will say, 'Hey, that person's making some noise! They look like they're gonna get stuff done now! I'll go over and hang out with them.'"

Dedrick, Hackett, and their posse decided to stage a wildcat strike -- that is, one without union sanction. But wildcats are risky. Before unions walk off the job, they file complaints with the NLRB against alleged unfair business practices at the target company. That makes it illegal for the firm to fire strikers. But DMS strikers, who understood little about labor law, filed no such papers.

"We believe this slow-as-molasses, utterly predictable, dutifully law-abiding strategy is a gift to [employers]," writes Hackett in an e-mail. "Many union drives that begin with enthusiasm and hope, die on the vine because this 'energy' isn't tapped and instead diffuses as workers tire of waiting, quit, or just grow cynical."

Katie Quan, director of the John F. Henning Institute of Labor Relations at UC Berkeley, agrees. "The problem with the NLRB system is it takes a long time for an election to take place," Quan says. "The process is delayed, and the employer has a lot of opportunity to mount an anti-union campaign inside the workplace."

The DMS strikers gave management a list of demands for better wages and working conditions, then struck for five days. Amazingly, DMS didn't fire anyone. Instead, it hired strikebreakers and violence erupted. A scab allegedly bashed a union picketer in the head with what witnesses said was a tire iron. The blow broke the picketer's jaw, and blood spurted everywhere.

The strikers eventually won some of their demands -- including winter bonuses, increased pay for rookie messengers, and better pay for downtown deliveries. But they still had no real medical plan, paid time off, or sick pay.

Dedrick and Hackett admit the company may have been confused about the strike; had management known the walkout was unconnected to the ILWU, it might not have buckled. "The fact that the ILWU had made its intentions known regarding DMS probably helped us wring concessions after our five-day wildcat strike -- even if the ILWU didn't exactly approve of our action," acknowledges Hackett.

Once they'd flexed their muscles in the semisuccessful job action, Dedrick and Hackett encouraged fellow messengers to sign union cards, in the interest of adding to their bargaining power. (Dedrick says she still "doesn't support the union drive per se," but that any organizing is better than nothing.)

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