Bent Outta Shape

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

"Since the president is slowly getting drunk," deadpans Carey Dall, executive director of the San Francisco Bike Messenger Association, "I propose we start this meeting without him."

Whether or not the head guy is off boozing somewhere, he's certainly not among the glum-looking messengers gathered in this chilly, badly lit room on a damp night in December. A dozen or so of them are sitting or lying next to their bicycles on the leaf-strewn linoleum floor of what looks like an abandoned train station at Ninth and Folsom. One pops open a tall beer in a paper bag while his buddy twists the cap off a 40-ounce malt liquor. They clink in a bleak toast to surviving their hair-raising jobs on the streets of San Francisco for one more day.

The dismal room is actually the foyer of the longshoremen's union hall, and the messengers are soon to discuss the lagging effort to unionize their employers. (They were supposed to meet in the more comfortable union auditorium, but someone forgot the key.) For more than four years, the messengers have been trying to organize through Local 6 of the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which views them as a new kind of transport worker. If they succeed, the San Francisco messenger industry will be the first in the country to wear the union label.

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.
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.
SFBMA Treasurer "Nellie" Nelson says it's 
"surprisingly hard" to get messengers to take time off 
work to organize.
Paolo Vescia
SFBMA Treasurer "Nellie" Nelson says it's "surprisingly hard" to get messengers to take time off work to organize.
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."
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.
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.
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.

The city's bike messengers have always been trendsetters in the world of professional couriers. In a business where workers are naturally drawn together by the unique physical challenges they face (and because they talk to each other on walkie-talkies all day long), San Francisco's messengers are ultra-clannish. They drink together at bars like Cassidy's and Zeitgeist. They compete against each other in "alley cat races" up and down the city's steepest hills. On Friday nights, they slug it out with one another in beery amateur-boxing matches. They have their own zines, bands, slang, and nicknames, such as "Party King," "Bok Choy," and "Reverend Jim."

Not surprisingly, given the strength of this subculture, San Francisco was the first city to spawn a kind of messenger Kiwanis Club, the San Francisco Bike Messenger Association, or SFBMA. The 13-year-old organization hosts parties, picnics, and camping trips, and has raised money to help out injured members. Its logo is a scary-looking skeletal dog riding a bike. That's the "gravy dog" -- messenger lingo for someone who's such a badass speedster that his dispatcher rewards him with the most lucrative pickups and deliveries.

But what seems like a rock 'n' roll lifestyle to outsiders has some serious downsides.

Like their colleagues nationwide, most local messengers work on commission. The deliveries they make, called "tags," are priced rock-bottom to begin with; a typical one-hour delivery downtown costs the customer just $5. The messenger's cut is about half of that. Moreover, orders are slow in dot-com-busted San Francisco, and the average messenger earns only about $400 a week. They usually get no health insurance, paid time off, reimbursements for bike repairs, or even meal breaks.

"You've got to sneak stuff in, ride really fast, and let them think you're in the dust when you're actually ahead," explains Nosmo King, a veteran messenger. "That way you can take a break." SFBMA Executive Director Dall, an energetic, blond 26-year-old from Sacramento, refers to messenger companies as "sweatshops on wheels."

Many messengers start pedaling because it seems like a liberating alternative to a desk job. You don't have much face time with bosses, you're outside all day instead of marooned in a cheerless office cube, and someone will always hire a rookie with nothing more than a strong pair of legs -- ideal if you're in a band, new to town, or don't know what else to do with yourself.

On the other hand, it can be damned dangerous work.

The government doesn't keep statistics for on-the-job injuries, but messengers get banged up almost as often as NFL running backs. "Everybody gets a temporarily disabling injury -- usually in their first two years -- as part of the 'learning experience,'" says longtime messenger Howard Williams. Typical accidents include getting "doored" in the ribs, cut off by cars making right-hand turns, and broadsided or run down from behind. Such hazards make messengers unusually fond of black humor. "What did the messenger say when he stopped smoking pot?" jokes one courier zine. "This job sucks." And the sucky aspects are a big reason why the half-exhausted workers are gathered at the ILWU hall on this rainy night.

SFBMA Secretary Jason Whitehead, a Georgia native who is a dead ringer for Steve McQueen, laconically drawls the minutes of the last meeting:

"President is resigning due to lack of motivation .... No attendance at the meeting before last ...."

The outgoing president, Damon Votour, a compact 33-year-old with a distinctly in-your-face personality, finally arrives and takes his place in the circle of messengers seated and sprawled on the floor. He wears a pink T-shirt, Converse high-tops, and elaborate tattoos on both arms. And he has some pointed advice for his successor.

"To whoever is the next president, I would just like to say one thing," Votour says. "Being able to come up with a good idea is one thing, and follow-through is another thing."

The messenger swigging beer from the paper bag interrupts and asks dreamily: "Is the SFBMA really moving forward to become a real union?"

There are a few beats of silence, during which a flicker of exasperation passes across the faces of nearly all of the elected SFBMA officers.

"There might be some confusion about the ILWU," patiently explains SFBMA Treasurer "Nellie" Nelson, a 31-year-old with girlish bangs falling across her forehead. "They're a bargaining agent. The SFBMA is too diverse of an agent to bargain on your behalf ...."

"I know that," the messenger with the beer says quietly.

"Well, what's your point then?" snaps Carey Dall.

When the union drive began in 1998, it had real juice. By 2000, the messengers had unionized two big San Francisco companies -- Ultra-Ex and Professional Messenger. Tag prices rose slightly not only at those firms but also at the 30 or so nonunion shops in the city.

But the economy abruptly tanked and the organizing effort lost steam. Dot-coms went under, the number of tags plummeted, messenger companies folded, and those still standing had less work to go around. Management stiffened its resistance to the ILWU; employees were less inclined to get out of line.

Though the union drive is still officially under way, no more local companies have been unionized since 2000. And the ILWU has yet to negotiate new contracts with the two unionized firms.

The messengers who ran the SFBMA during the early years of the organizing drive are showing signs of burnout. And that goes double for Damon Votour.

"The point is getting lost, and momentum is getting lost," he snarls in an attempt to steer the conversation back to his valedictory remarks. "If anyone is so spineless that they can't stand up and take on their employer, you're letting yourself down, and your co-workers down.

"That is bullshit. If you're too scared, then you deserve what you get."

The union campaign began with a bang. Messengers organized the first "Messenger Appreciation Day," or "10/9 Day," on Oct. 9, 1998. ("10/9" in messenger radio code means "Say again" or "What?")

Thanks to the ILWU's considerable political clout, then-Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano gave the day official city recognition. And both Ammiano and Mayor Willie Brown spoke out in support of the messengers' fight for better working conditions.

Pro-union messengers passed around union sign-up cards at major courier companies. SFBMA meetings became hotbeds of organizing activity. And right off the bat, there were problems.

Like the car couriers.

Under federal labor law, bike messengers who want to be represented by a union can't exclude car or foot messengers from their union drive. In order to organize the industry, the bike people would have to get the car folks on board. The challenge was to somehow bridge the traditional differences and animosities between the two messenger tribes.

Local bike messengers tend to be single white males in their late 20s or early 30s. They live in big cities like San Francisco and Oakland. Car messengers are often older minorities -- Mexicans, Nicaraguans, and Indian Sikhs, for instance -- who hail from distant suburbs like Antioch or Tracy. Unlike the bike messengers, drivers tend to be lone wolves. They don't have an organization like the SFBMA and don't drink beer with each other after work -- much less with bike messengers. While most bike riders don't have families, mortgages, or car payments, most car couriers do. And so the drivers have more to lose by pushing their luck with management.

Nato Green wasn't your typical driver.

In 1998, when the union crusade was launched, Green was jobless, having gotten canned from Noah's Bagels in San Francisco, where he tried to organize his fellow schmear servers.

"I was looking for a new place to plug in," says Green, 26, whose wide green eyes have an unsettling tendency to lock onto whomever he is speaking to, and not let go.

Green (his first name is a nickname for Nathaniel) brags that he is a "classic Red diaper baby" -- that is, a child of left-wing parents. His father headed the Bay Area Radical Teachers Organizing Committee, which promoted a lefty curriculum. Both his dad and mom were active in the San Francisco teachers' union.

Nato Green is obsessed with labor unions the way most guys his age are obsessed with PlayStation 2 or collecting vintage vinyl. When he learned of the ILWU organizing drive, he wanted a piece of the action. But, as an asthmatic and self-described physical wreck, he wasn't much good at riding a bike all day long. So in 1999, Green took a job as a car courier for Professional Messenger, one of the city's largest courier outfits, and began making deliveries around the Bay Area.

One day, another driver approached him with a union card, and he signed it.

At the time, he says, many couriers were outraged at the way Pro Mess, as it's known in the industry, made out their paychecks and displayed their cut of the tags. The actual amounts customers paid per tag were kept secret, so messengers couldn't do the math to make sure they were getting paid properly. Also, their cuts fluctuated, seemingly at random and never with any explanation.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

"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.

"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 ( "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.)

But when DMS -- by this time operating under the name City Sprint -- was presented with signed cards from a majority of its couriers, it was too late to call a union election. The company had declared bankruptcy, and shut its doors in July 2000.

Six months later, some bike messengers at a smaller company called Flash attempted to follow in Dedrick and Hackett's footsteps with a wildcat of their own.

The owner, a former messenger, immediately fired them all.

In 2000, messenger firms found a new way to scatter tacks on the road in front of the ILWU.

Damon Votour, the tattooed now-ex-SFBMA president, was then riding for a company called First Legal Support Services. In November 2000, the firm announced it was converting all of its messengers to independent contractors, à la Pro Mess.

First Legal employees, however, didn't even come close to qualifying as independent contractors under IRS rules. They didn't work for any other firms besides First Legal, nor did they advertise their services, set their own hours, or ask First Legal to submit bids.

As newly hatched independent contractors, they had to pay monthly dues to a Massachusetts-based company called the National Independent Contractors Association, or NICA. In return, they were told, they'd receive workers' compensation coverage and help with their soon-to-be-nightmarish taxes as "self-employed" workers.

First Legal's messengers, however, weren't happy with their new options. Especially when a little sleuthing revealed that NICA owner Thomas McGrath had pleaded guilty in 1996 and 1997 to federal charges of forging workers' comp insurance certificates for courier companies.

The ILWU promptly filed a complaint with the NLRB, in which messengers told multiple horror stories about their employer.

Votour testified that First Legal's assistant office manager, Andy Lazalde, said if he didn't sign papers to become an independent contractor, his services would no longer be needed. "And I said, 'Does that mean I'm fired?' and he said, 'Yes,'" claimed Votour.

Votour did sign, but noted on the paperwork that he was doing so "under duress and protest."

According to Votour and two other employees, First Legal's owner, Elisha Gilboa, told couriers the company could no longer afford workers' comp coverage. He allegedly added that if they didn't switch to independent status, the company would go out of business.

Asked whether the conversion was designed to trip up the union, Gilboa answered "Yes," employees testified. (Gilboa denied that in a phone interview.)

Last summer, the union won its case against First Legal. A San Francisco judge found the company guilty of numerous violations of federal labor law. The NLRB is now seeking an order forcing it to recognize the union.

The ILWU's Fred Pecker hopes the action against First Legal scares other employers out of using the same tactic to dodge the union. But so far, that hasn't happened. In December, Flash -- the company where the second wildcat strike failed so miserably -- converted its messengers to independent contractors.

Last summer, Nato Green and Carey Dall met with the ILWU's lawyers over breakfast to discuss bombarding messenger companies with another volley of wage and overtime lawsuits. The first barrage, in 1999, seemed to work well in forcing companies like Pro Mess and Speedway to the bargaining table.

In the meantime, the ILWU's headaches had gotten even worse, aggravated by another industry trend.

A number of messengers had responded to the sluggish pace of the union drive, and the lousy economy in general, by starting their own companies. Over the past five years, more than a dozen small firms like Jet Set and Godspeed have sprung up to compete with established biggies like Pro Mess. The small outfits -- managed by people whose own bike seats are still warm -- tend to be more generous with pay and benefits. One, Cupid Courier, is run as a cooperative.

Some messengers fear that over time, these little firms will grow and their owners will become just as ruthless and intransigent as those of the bigger firms. They cite the example of Flash, which was started by an ex-messenger.

"No man's absolutely good or absolutely evil. Without some kind of contract, if it's the standard hierarchical structure, then it's going to have the same boss-power relationship as the old companies," says ex-SFBMA Executive Director Bernie Corace.

But other messengers see the little firms and their more sympathetic owners as a solution to the industry's problems. And if a growing number of messengers can work for decent small firms, who needs the union?

Over breakfast, the ILWU legal eagles warned Green and Dall that not only were wage and OT lawsuits costly to the union, but they might even trigger the collapse of some financially shaky firms, says Green. Obviously, that would mean fewer jobs for messengers -- and fewer members for the ILWU.

Green and Dall later reconvened over barbecued brisket at a Lower Haight restaurant. There they hit on a different strategy. They decided to file wage and OT claims with the California Labor Commission instead. Let the state pick up the tab for actually suing the companies. And if the firms couldn't afford to pay, screw 'em.

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.

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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