>In the past year and a half, San Francisco bicycle messengers have taken significant steps toward organizing for collective action against their bosses — the courier company owners — and by extension, corporate downtown. This is a struggle that should be of interest to all pro-labor people, and, specifically, those who see the radical possibilities latent in a transient, counter-cultural workforce centered in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district.
The San Francisco Bicycle Messenger Association (SFBMA) was established in 1990 as an in-yer-face assertion that since the courier company bosses have a club (AMCS — translation unknown), so should their slaves. The reality, however, was that the SFBMA existed for years as little more than a mythic formation emblazoned on visors and t-shirts.
This began to change in the beginning of 1997 after a wild-cat strike nearly broke out in response to yet another indignity at the hands of Doc Holbrook, notorious owner of Ultra Ex, one of the largest courier firms in the city. Only a week or so before Christmas of 1996, Ultra Ex called an early morning, mandatory meeting to announce that riders would receive an across-the-board commission decrease as that year’s Christmas bonus. A petition threatening a walk-out was quickly circulated and signed by virtually every messenger as well as some of the office staff. Management’s response — a combination of minor concessions and threats to farm the work out to other courier firms, thus diluting the effect of an isolated job action — was successful in deterring a strike. However, it galvanized interest in, and underlined the need for, collective, industry-wide organization.
In fits and starts since that time, the SFBMA has developed into an organization that meets regularly, has clear demands, puts out a newsletter, and is in the process of formulating tactics and strategies. In the past several months, messengers at three different courier companies — Advanced, DMS and Professional — have banded together and made modest demands which their employers have ceded. A small fissure in the edifice of cynicism so prevalent amongst wage-salves can be seen. In other words, it’s a dynamic, open situation.
Late last March, the SFBMA voted to accept an offer by the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) to affiliate. A "working agreement" was signed in which the SFBMA retains its organizational autonomy and is afforded office space and use of the Union Hall at 255 9th Street, tactical support, and full legal defense. In exchange, the SFBMA pays the ILWU $137.50 a month (equivalent to 25 members paying $5.50) and is expected to fulfill an agreement to work to organize the entire courier industry.
Unions, Radicals and Where to Go From Here
What excites me about the prospect of messengers organizing is the power that messengers could wield if they were to constitute themselves as a collective force. San Francisco’s retail-financial-corporate center, a base to many of the world’s biggest and most powerful businesses, could not function without hundreds and hundreds of messengers (not only on bikes: also by foot, moped, motorcycle and auto) servicing its same-day-delivery needs. This leverage is the basis for real social power that is far more inspiring, in my view, than simply securing a contract with our employers.
This raises many questions about the role of unions in the radical project which many leftists and progressives seem unwilling to entertain. In their chief role as labor merchandisers, unions seek to create a closed labor market within which they can sell their "wares". Is this radical? Is it inspiring? Why does it seem to fail so often even on its own limited terms? My guess is that the answer to the third question, at least in part, is because the answer to the first two is a resounding NO.
From the standpoint of traditional unionism, the transience which characterizes the courier industry is a major impediment to organizing because it doesn’t accommodate the designedly slow pace of the official recognition process. Isn’t this a reason to look beyond the legal, state-sanctioned mechanisms? After all, doesn’t worker fluidity and instability pervade the American economy in 1998? In fact, it seems itinerant/temp/transient workers, often the most oppressed, are apt to be mighty disloyal, and thus, potentially the most insurgent. If so, acting quickly seems in order!
Those interested in donating to the SFBMA strike fund and/or receiving the SFBMA newsletter, Cognition, should contact: SFBMA, PO Box 640251, San Francisco, CA 94164-0251. Ronnie R. has been a SF bike messenger for the better part of the past 4 years.
Proposed boxes he wants printed with the article:
Wanted: Insolent Radicals!
Get a job as a messenger and help the class war this Fall. Advanced, Ultra Ex, Professional, Aero and many others will be hiring like mad come September, just in time for the SFBMA’s intensified organizing campaign!
1. Commissioned messengers should receive no less than $3 for a regular downtown delivery, regardless of what the client is charged.
2. Commissioned messengers should receive no less than 55% of the actual price to the client.
3. Commissioned messengers should make $80 minimum daily.
4. All messengers should receive: Paid sick days, vacation days and lunch.
5. Full health coverage or equivalent amount in cash monthly.
6. Direct comp for bike provision and maintenance.
7. Rainy day bonus.
8. Hourly messengers – whether on foot, bike, motorcycle or car: Minimum $11/hour with regulated work loads.