Bike messengers in San Francisco are more confident, capable and self-aware now than ever before. A number of individuals are thinking about a practical approach to that old bugaboo, "getting organized." Can the powerful energy and successful coordination of the recent Cycle Messenger World Championships be re-channeled?

A questionnaire to participating messengers at the CMWC revealed that most make more money, work less, have health coverage, and generally enjoy substantially superior wages and working conditions in other places (with some exceptions, of course). Banding together in San Francisco to extract more money and better conditions is a real option. But there are a number of things to think about in terms of various approaches, goals, and tactics, not to mention gnarly larger issues about technology, economic development, precarious job security, and so on.


Regardless of occasional attempts to claim that bike messengering is a "respectable" occupational choice, the job is associated by outsiders and insiders with an outlaw status. The general impression of bike messengers in San Francisco is that of a band of dangerous outlaws, individualistic, risk taking, wild, grungy, teetering on the brink of insanity, or at least as a devil-may-care, scofflaw, marginal subculture. Bike messengers themselves often play up to this image, in looks and behavior, but there's at least a couple of hundred everyday messengers who have been working at it for many years, some over a decade. There is a romantic mystique many feel for their roaming work, and the freedom enjoyed from moment to moment can be one of the more exhilarating aspects of messengering. But anyone who's been at it for long knows it's a job with plenty of negative qualities too, in spite of its romance.

As a hard, underpaid job, many workers find themselves spending large parts of their low wages on alcohol, proj and heroin. The popularity of proj is probably relatively healthy, but the rampant alcoholism and heroin addiction takes lives regularly and must be confronted. Messengering is already a dangerous occupation; getting hurt and killed on the road is a daily threat. Consoling oneself after work for an empty, unsatisfactory life by abusing alcohol and heroin would be an ironic response if it weren't so devastating.

Messengers have created important communal rituals for the all-too-common deaths of friends and co-workers with memorials on the spot, wakes at South Park, ceremonial bike burials in the bay at Mission Rock, etc. This is the stuff of real solidarity--but too late. Can people come together before such tragedy? Can this solidarity become a force to be reckoned with, a power to challenge the shape of our lives?

Currently there are many divisions built in to the message delivery industry:

Bike messengers are different than walkers and both are different than drivers, all of whom are a rung or two below the employees of FedEx or UPS. Among bike messengers some are categorized as employees, some are independent contractors, while others are simply self-employed.

The hardest working and luckiest make the most money, right? Messengering is shaped by a hierarchy of success, which many workers accept and enforce themselves, believing in the essential justice of a supposed meritocracy in which the most deserving are the most rewarded. The division between gravy dogs, slugs, and everyone in between--strongly reinforced by the piece rate pay system--makes it hard to feel "in it together" on a moment-by-moment basis on the job. In fact, everyone is racing the clock and each other, both to accumulate more tags and money and to prove to the dispatcher (or the company) you are a skilled worker. A relentless pressure to go faster contributes to the competitive frenzy, putting company priorities first.

Most messengers are young. Not yet settled in life, few see themselves in it for the long haul. Messengering is a fun, outdoors job in which you see a lot and meet a lot of people. As a messenger you can feel a quiet superiority to the conformists and corporate climbers you interact with in various offices... or perhaps not so quiet! Legion are the stories of insubordinate outbursts from unruly messengers. In any case, most messengers in the pool of possible participants in any attempt to get organized are young and temporary, often naive and apolitical in that quintessentially American suburban way. There are few, if any, experiences growing up in America these days, that teach anything valuable about sticking together and fighting for our rights. Kindling instincts among people in their early 20's for solidarity and group action will take some imagination and heat!


A broad discussion of the possibilities should be taken up, at the Wall, the CW Saloon, Zeitgeist, Jackson Park, Harvey's, the usual haunts. Here's one man's view of some options and possible consequences.


Messengers can start an organizing campaign with a straight ahead trade union. A good prospective local is SEIU 790, a local that just signed up the Lusty Lady strippers, and has supported for some time the Exotic Dancers Alliance, a less formal organizing committee of strippers. Local 790 also represents the Librarians Guild who are fighting a tremendous behind-the-scenes battle to save the library from gross mismanagement, corporate takeover and privatization.

SEIU brings money, legal support, paid staffers, and organizing experience. But they also bring changes to the structure of the industry. Usually a closed shop comes with the deal, meaning that messengers will see union dues "checked off" their paychecks and participation is mandatory. Beyond the inescapable participation, unions, when successful, set the terms for the sale of labor power in a given industry. If messengers sign up with the SEIU, and successfully bring most messengers into the union, it will certainly promote a far greater standardization in the industry of rates of pay and conditions of labor. This always means tapping the revenue and profit streams flowing into the industry and tends to drive out small competitors, and motivate the people paying the wages to find ways to reduce their workforce through automation. Union rules can defend worker-controlled work rules (e.g. waiting time at the Wall), but in the long term, codifying such rules in contracts tends to make them open to "responsible bargaining" later, allowing serious restructuring of an industry to proceed with the ostensible "consent" of the workforce. Also unions have historically preferred to represent the full-time workforce and haven't yet shown much will or imagination to adapt to more temporary and part-time workforces. This is likely to be changing now as unions seek to organize the rapidly growing areas of the workforce.


San Francisco Bicycle Messenger Association has been around for almost a decade, but has never launched anything like a serious organizing campaign. It's activities and ongoing existence have brought the messenger culture together and provided an ephemeral organization and shared identity. Seriously trying to sign up most messengers into the SFBMA would require a huge commitment of time and effort. If messengers organize into a loose association like the SFBMA, they have greater freedom, but also much greater responsibilities if they hope to do more than be a social club. A set of goals must be identified and articulated, hopefully with very broad participation, and then a new self-directed organizing campaign would have to create new strategies and employ innovative tactics. Sources of power, the jugular veins of the status quo, must be identified and plans developed to successfully control them.

An independent association may find it harder to get support, especially financial, but as the CMWC showed, the community can mobilize a fair amount of support when approached with forethought.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect to any organizing effort is the importance of creating democratic structures without getting hopelessly overwhelmed by personality conflicts and emotional baggage. Building a process and learning to work with it, trust it, and accept its control is a difficult task for most people in any part of our lives.


What do YOU want from an organization?

You should state your goals as clearly as you can for all to see and hear.


Any organization should have as its primary, immediate goal the reinforcement of community and cultural self-awareness and expression, explicitly supporting all initiatives which directly promote SOLIDARITY among bike messengers (as well as other messengers, and ultimately other temps and similarly situated service sector workers).

Start regular meetings;

examine the industry of message delivery;

ponder the future;

anticipate the impacts of oncoming technologies

define as broadly as possible the messenger niche, its nature today and what changes may be likely.

Emphasize safety and health against shoddy and discriminatory traffic engineering and transit design, piece-rate speedups, as well as the capitulation to self-defeat through a desperate consumerism: heroin addiction and alcoholism.

Join with other cyclists to fight for a green(er) and more bicycle-friendly city

Promote equality and mutual support among messengers BEFORE death or retirement. Share what you got (many do already), whether it's in your pocket or in your head. Messengers are too smart to remain isolated if acting together can change things for the better.


San Francisco longshoremen in 1933 were required to belong to a company union and turn out every morning for the "shape-up": a system of hiring workers on a daily basis based on waterfront boss favoritism, nepotism, and bribery, which created a humiliating dependence on good will/kindness of the boss. The 1934 waterfront strike, culminating in the July General Strike was settled by a arbitrator's decision to establish a jointly-controlled hiring hall, split between shippers and longshoremen. In actual practice, the longshoremen created a legendary system of elected dispatchers allocating work on the basis of "low man out," sharing the available work as fairly as possible.

Ultimately messengers should control their own daily existence through a messenger-organized and controlled hiring hall which eliminates the owners and establishes a single source for labor... Other activities and "services" could also be shared through the hiring hall: forming bands, getting rehearsal space, recording, gigs, etc., legal consulting, medical insurance, credit union, skill sharing/training, bike repair and maintenance, etc.

Of course, that's just my twisted way of seeing things!

Your friend,

Chris Carlsson

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