Cognition Issue 2
Back at the SFBMA meeting in March it was voted upon to make the SFBMA our own union (and not to work with the Teamsters.) We have done that, and quite a few other things, with little to no support, input or participation by anybody except a group of five to ten people. We have gone about as far as we can by ourselves.
We are now a union. But that means very little. We have no money, no contracts, no elected officers, no public support, no resources to pull from if we strike (the timing would be perfect with El Nino too!) We can't even get non-profit status yet. We will have no power to demand anything until we get at least some of these things.
A few of us doing the organizing are thinking of looking back to the Teamsters for help (Even the person who initiated the vote to not work with them.) We have been pointed to them by other unions. They were more than willing to help us at the beginning of the year, and as far as I know they only union to have have a contract with a messenger company in San Francisco (at least in the last ten years.) So, we are going to try to set up a SFBMA meeting where a Teamster representative will speak and answer questions. Then we can decide where to go from there. The SFBMA isn't going to move forward without your help. Look for flyers or call SFBMA voicemail (415 560 5428) for more info.
There was a lot of negative press about us folk in November. First, with the Boston accident, where the ped who without looking walked in front of the non-Boston messenger and was sent to the hospital in a coma. Then in New York where a food delivery messenger hit a 67 year old man on the sidewalk, killing him. These are the only serious bike/ped accidents with injuries that I have heard about all year. If you turn on the news any night you will hear about a fatal car accident (They are the number one killer of people in the world.) Over 400,000 deaths happened in the U.S. by motor vehicles in 1996 with over 5,000 peds killed.
In both of these "messenger"/ped accidents, the governing bodies in these cities are calling for stricter laws for messengers, with the media's help (Turning these two rare incidents into sensational stories about how dangerous we are to public health.) Is that all it would take here (one major messenger/ped accident) to get the cops to enforce our license plate law? Or to add a few more?
What can we do about it? What could we do if it happens here? Or would you just accept it, and let it happen?
So far the SFBMA has joined with other cycling and messenger groups in Canada, Europe and the US who are standing against the political grandstanding and media sensationalism following these accidents, and have sent a joint statement to the media to that effect. You got any other bright ideas?
On any given workday of the year, hundreds of messengers - by foot, bike, motorcycle and car - are set in motion serving the needs of the machine. Whether we like our job or not, as individuals we are at the mercy of forces largely outside our control. We mount the treadmill to survive; enormous cynicism and a powerlessness flows from this. But collectively this shit can change. Centralized in the financial district, as messengers we are positioned to have, or take, considerable social power. Downtown SF, a base to many of the most powerful businesses in the world and site of mega international commerce, wouldn't function too well without us dutifully and efficiently delivering thousands of parcels each day. If we were to take concerted collective action, we would be taken seriously.
The question is how to tap into this latent power. Clearly, an important aspect is building the infrastructure of the SFBMA. The SFBMA is an organizational vehicle, but what is it up against and where is it going? The basis for effectively organizing, in my view, is a grasp of the courier industry and the demands we intend to make. This in turn will help to clarify the overall project.
Features of the industry
Most, but not all, messengers work as out-sourced labor for enterprises that contract out same day delivery work through courier companies. While some firms have in-house couriers, most don't. This is because the prevailing system is the most flexible (read: cheap) way to get the work done.
Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Bechtel, Goodby, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, Chevron etc etc etc like the current setup just fine. Contracting out delivery work allows for a precise payment system without further obligation or expenses. They pay only for service rendered without hassles such as hourly wages, workers comp, labor management or benefits of any kind. High volume corporate/business clients sich as these are afforded immense leverage over the prices they actually do pay. This is done by "shopping around", often using multiple courier companies simultaneously, and extracting big discounts and other sweet deals.
system would not be possible without the beloved courier company. In essense
UltraEx, Silver Bullet, Pro, Aero, Western and the rest turn a profit by managing
a workforce that is required to shoulder many of the costs of production itself.
Any attempt to accurately gage one's actual wage has to take these uncompensated
costs into account: The expense of maintaining one's mode of transport, time
and money spent fixing one's mode of transport, unpaid injury, sick and holidays,
not being compensated for working holidays of other slow days, and the cost
of our extra food consumption.
Because most of us work commission, labor costs are essentially fixed in relation to revenues; this is because most of us are afforded no assurances beyond the commission cut. Increasingly, courier companies are using low-paid hourly messengers to gain even further control over wages, frequently doing pricey tags that then don't need to be split.
Demands on the industry
Obviously, this above description is just a broad sketch. In order to tailor specific demands, it would be good to compile and publicize a run-down of each companies policies. But courier companies come and go. What's needed are industry-wide standards. It is clear that the individual courier companies, busy exploiting labor in a highly competitive market, have neither the will nor the capacity to set conditions that would be to our liking. If standards regulating the messenger industry are to be imposed, they will have to be imposed by the messengers themselves.
are ideas of demands we could make if we get busy. They are not etched in
stone; they are meant to be kicked around and get the ball rolling:
1. Commissioned messengers should receive no less that $3 for a non-rush downtown delivery regardless of what the client is charged. A SFBMA set of zones with minimum rates to the messenger has been discussed, but not devised.
2. Minimum 55% commission of the actual price to the customer. Most companies have a "service charge" that the messenger doesn't get commission on.
3. $80 minimum compounded each day.
4. Paid sick days, paid vacation, paid lunch.
5. Full health coverage, or equivalent in cash monthly.
6. Direct compensation for bike provision and maintenance.
7. Rainy day bonus.
8. Hourly messengers, whether on bike, foot, or car: Minimum $11/hour with regulated work loads. Should apply to in-house couriers as well.
Where goeth the SFBMA?
Clearly we are not, as yet, in a position to make demands such as these with any real authority. But that can change. The question is, what type of organization can best facilitate a strengthening of solidarity and a spirit that it can be done?
In my view the SFBMA should be seen as a catalyst for action and not a union in the traditional sense. The state sanctioned union recognition process is designed to slow down and box in collective activity amongst workers by directing their energy into predictabel bureaucratic channels. The high level of turn-over and fluidity in the messenger industry especially underlines the importance of avoiding such inflexible modes of organization. Instead, we should aim to be light on our feet, picking our battles based on a realistic assessment of our strength at a given moment.
Building that strength, at minimum, requires a core of people who are serious about organizing. So far, the SFBMA has had about five meetings, several of them well-attended despite so-so publicity, but has yet to develop clear collective goals or a sense of community. Regular meeting places and times and a clear set of demands would help. The rainy season is upon us. Let us begin.
- Ronnie R.
It was a warm and sunny afternoon, which would explain the low turnout. I think the meetings will be after work now, but with the rainy season, the meetings will probably be as small and those that do show up will be cold, wet and tired. Anyway...
Wendy started the meeting by explaining her research into a bank account and the best looks like Home Savings at 200 California St. We have to deposit $200 to start a checking account, and it will cost $6/month to maintain it until we attain nonprofit status. At that time the checking account will be free of monthly fees.
When Mike from Fixed Gear showed up, he talked about opening up a bike shop downtown or South of Market, and was into the idea of splitting the cost with the SFBMA, so we could have an office, clubhouse, library and in-house bike mechanic. The cost of the buildings he has been looking into are anywhere from $650 to $1000 a month. We don't have the money now, but if people start paying their dues, we could pay that easily.
I explained where we were at with our nonprofit status. We have all the forms, but need to be able to represent messengers at a company (we need to add a contract with our forms). We need elected officers. We also need some consultation from an attorney and about $150. After that, we send in the forms and wait for the man to OK it.
I also broke down our funds. The benefit at the Tempest made $282. $100 was sent to Pauline's family, and $100 went to the Casey Moe fund set up by Aero. Paying for SFBMA to become a union took up a lot, but we still have about $70.
Howard spoke about his meeting with Wendy Nelder who is one of the people in charge of the earthquake plan. The plan would basically be a contract with the SFBMA and the city which would give emergency training to those of us who want it and in the event of a devastating earthquake, we would go to the nearest fire station and be sent out to deliver first aid, supplies, messages etc. They use this system in other large cities around the world.
Bok Choy showed us our SFBMA union business license and tax ID number forms.
Karen talked about our need for representatives from every company, who will need to come to SFBMA meetings and talk to others at their work about the conditions and what they want. The owners will probably know who these people are and we will need to be prepared in case they threaten termination.
In the group we discussed the need to start collecting dues, which was decided to be $5/month at the March meeting. (Please give your dues to me, Howard, Wendy or Bok Choy.)
going to need a treasurer. Their job will be getting our bank account, keeping
track of our cash records, paying bills, depositing money and collecting dues
until we get an office. We decided that there should be an assistant who will
have equal powers. I was nominated and Wendy said she could take the assistant
job. If anyone else wants to do it or nominate someone else, let us know.
We also voted to join the Transit First Market St. Alliance, and support the Saturday closure of JFK Drive.