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California and the West

S.F. Bicycle Couriers Ride Union Cycle

Jobs: Inspired by topless dancers' successful effort, labor leaders peddle idea to hill-defying messengers.

October 19, 1998|SARAH YANG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — Taking their inspiration in part from the successful unionization last year of exotic dancers in a local strip joint, the city's bicycle messengers are attempting to organize.

"If they can do it, why can't we?" asks America Meredith, a member of the board of directors of the San Francisco Bike Messenger Assn.

This new sense of possibilities comes on top of the heightened frustration that couriers have with compensation and other workplace issues. The effort to unionize has gained support from city officials, including Mayor Willie Brown and Supervisor Tom Ammiano.

"You do good work, and you're entitled to good pay," said Brown, addressing couriers at a recent appreciation day for bike messengers. "You ought to negotiate for better working conditions. You ought to negotiate for better salaries. And you ought to negotiate for better benefits."

The bike messengers are working with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to improve the lot of courier service employees, including drivers and dispatchers. If successful, the city's bike messengers would probably be the first two-wheeled couriers in the nation to unionize.

"It's a dangerous job in hostile conditions," said bike courier Paul Kazemi. "It's time for us to get what we need."

What the messengers need, union organizers say, are full health benefits and a living wage. "We do not get paid enough for the work we do," said Howard Williams, president of the city's bike messenger association.

Williams says bike messengers in San Francisco net an average of $300 per week, making them some of the lowest-paid couriers in the country. "The rate of increase has been almost nil in the last 15 years, while prices of things that we need have gone up."

Although this is not the first attempt to unionize messengers, it is shaping up to be the most serious one. The notoriously high turnover rate in the industry has been one of the biggest obstacles in efforts to organize.

"[Bike messengers] work for two to three months and they move on," said Sal Grassia, co-owner and CEO of UltraEx. "This is a tough job, so who would want to do this for five years?"

But messengers hope that a union can infuse the industry with the stability needed for real improvement.

"Obviously it's a transient population because most people don't last more than a month when they find that after their first, second or third paycheck that it isn't anywhere near what it should be for the amount of effort they're putting out," said Kazemi. "There wouldn't be this turnover if there were decent compensation and benefits."

Some messengers are concerned over the recent takeover of several courier companies by Dispatch Management Services, a multinational corporation that now covers five messenger companies. Many workers felt that the new payout system--which pays a set price for deliveries instead of a percentage of the client's payment--cut into their wages.

"People took a pay cut," said Gina Kilpatrick, an eight-year veteran in the messenger industry. "And more profit went to the DMS corporation. I don't know any messenger who likes the system."

However, Joseph Connelly, account executive at Aero Special Delivery Service, notes that some of the concerns are based more on a general fear and distrust of corporations than on actual facts. He said that ever since Aero joined DMS in February, the average wage for the bike messengers increased from $70 per day to $90 per day before taxes, and that other services have seen similar increases.

While few owners and managers of courier services would express support for unionization, many said they feel that the effort to organize will probably be beneficial in the long run.

Still, many owners feel that smaller companies may bear the brunt of organization, saying that they can least afford to pay for higher union wages and expanded employee benefits. For instance, Matthew Talmadge, owner of Advance Courier, says he cannot afford to pay for sick leave. "I'd probably go out of business," he said. "Just about every Monday, I have 25% of my crew call in sick because they're hung over from the weekend."

Despite these concerns, the odds of a successful union drive this time around look better.

"I think this [effort] is different," Connelly said. "Knowing the people that are involved, the organizational level is there. They've gotten their act together."

Grassia at UltraEx says he does not think a union is needed, but "if there were a union, it would probably be good for the business. It would improve the standards and create some stabilization within the work force."

John Cowles, owner of No B.S. Couriers, says that unionization may create a level playing field in the business. "I would be a more profitable company if everyone unionized because I'm paying more than others," he said. "I think that it's an equalizing measure."

Organizers agree that widespread participation is crucial to success.

"We don't expect to be able to organize one particular company and sit on our laurels," said Peter Olney, director of organizing for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. "We're looking at organizing 80% to 90% of the market so nobody is put at a competitive disadvantage."

Many people say that if the campaign is successful, the organizing could affect the character of the entire industry.

"It would probably change how long people stay in the messenger business," said John Matthew, a messenger for 1 1/2 years. "And it would probably change what type of people get into the messenger business."

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