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
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.
THE UNION OPTION:
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.
QUESTION FOR ORGANIZERS:
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