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Bent Outta Shape 

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

Wednesday, Jan 22 2003
"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.

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.

About The Author

Lessley Anderson


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