Bent Outta Shape

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

On Nov. 22, 13 bike messengers and drivers filed $100,000 in back wage claims against several outfits. "Mainly," writes Green in an e-mail, "we want to get as many messengers to file as many claims with as many regulatory agencies as possible, until these motherfuckers obey the law."

The new suits, concedes Green, represent a tactical shift away from trying to unionize the industry. Now, the goal is just trying to get the companies to follow existing rules on paying their people.

But one man's tactical shift is another's tactical retreat. In any event, it's clear that the ILWU campaign has bogged down.

Former SFBMA President Damon Votour.
Paolo Vescia
Former SFBMA President Damon Votour.
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.

Dall, who works at Western Messenger Services -- one of the biggest outfits in the city -- says the union is nowhere near having majority status there. "Nellie" Nelson, who works at First Legal, has tried to rally her co-workers to undertake "some kind of action" in protest of what she claims are continual violations of labor law by her company. But, she admits, it's "surprisingly hard" to get people to take even a half-day off work to help organize.

In the best of times, it's still no picnic to unionize a messenger company.

"You may spend two years of your life working towards something you're not going to reap the benefits of," says Bernie Corace. "But it has to be something that's not a vague concept like 'raising the bar.' It has to be, 'I'm helping my friends. The people I live with. The ones who help me get dates!'"

But these days -- in a town where a pitcher of good beer costs $12, a grubby studio apartment goes for $800 a month, and almost everybody knows somebody who's out of work -- it's even tougher to organize.

"People," says Dall, "really tighten up and get scared and don't want to rock the boat when the economy tightens up."

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