The SFBMA/ILWU Partnership for Justice for the Bay Area Courier Industry
From 1997-1998

Just as longshore workers keep international commerce moving, couriers keep the wheels of business turning in the San Francisco Bay Area, providing vital local transportation of documents, goods and information.

Like other business services such as parking and building maintenance, courier services have been outsourced more and more frequently over the last 15 years. This creates a three-tiered industry.

At the top are the clients who purchase the service. In the middle are the courier companies, who compete to offer more for less. At bottom are the people who do the work-messengers on foot, bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles and in cars and trucks.

Couriers put in long hours at low pay with sketchy benefits. Employers routinely flout state and federal wage and hour laws, by incorrectly computing overtime, charging illegal fees and not paying costs for which they're legally responsible.

To achieve justice and equity for messengers, the ILWU is working with the San Francisco Bicycle Messengers Association (SFBMA) and the United Bay Area Delivery Drivers (UBADD). Through our joint efforts we hope to raise standards industry-wide, so companies have to compete on the quality of the services they offer rather than the penury of the wages they pay.

I. Clients: Paying the freight
Every type of enterprise in San Francisco's information- and finance-centered economy makes use of couriers-from law firms, banks and insurance agencies to multimedia moguls, high-tech powerhouses and advertising agencies, from corporate giants like Bechtel and Bank of America to local print shops. Universities, public agencies and non-profits use their services as well.

Despite predictions that e-mail and faxes would render couriers obsolete, clients still rely on them to deliver a wide range of critical items: blueprints, printed material, legal documents, medical supplies, replacement electronic parts, bank deposits, etc. And they deliver it fast: an office in a real hurry can order a 15-minute rush.

These clients, the end users of courier services, hold ultimate responsibility for wages and conditions in the industry-and they're well able to pay the freight for improving them.

II. Courier Companies: Consolidating and cutting corners
Though independent courier companies emerged in the 1940s, the 1980s saw a dramatic rise in clients' outsourcing courier work as a way to reduce costs. At first the work was done by small mom-and-pop operations. As the industry evolved, the firms grew and consolidated. Today large, publicly traded companies dominate the market and consolidation is steadily quickening.

Four major companies are trying to become big players on the national scene: Dispatch Management Services Inc. (DMS), Corporate Express, Consolidated Delivery and Logistics Inc, and Dynamex.

Other big players
Corporate Express Delivery Systems employs around 250 people in their Bay Area courier operation. They are part of a larger corporation, which employs 19,000 people nationwide, primarily in sale and distribution of office supplies. They may be selling their courier operations. CEDS is also a publicly traded corporation.

Dynamex employs 2,750 people nationwide and around 75 in their Bay Area operations. Dynamex is also publicly traded.
The Bay Area courier industry includes dozens of other companies, ranging in size from regional concerns like Professional Messenger and Express Network, which operate in several West Coast cities, to small independents like No-BS and Lightning. Although many of these would like to provide better wages and benefits, downward pressure on tags and wages by the larger companies like DMS and others is making it hard for these companies to compete on quality.

III. Courier Workforce: Working too hard for too little
Today, there are more than 2,000 people employed in the San Francisco courier industry. Some 300-350 work as bike messengers, and around 1,000 as car couriers. The rest are walkers, motorcyclists, and office staff (including dispatchers, orders takers, and office clerical workers). Their work varies, but as the name "same-day urgent delivery business" implies, all face their particular stresses.

Bike Messengers
The most colorful and cohesive section of the delivery work force, bikers have their own bands, bars, Web sites, slang and even an international association. (See the San Francisco Bicycle Messengers Assn. on-line at

Though many bike messengers are young white men, the workforce is far from homogeneous. Some messengers are women, some people of color, some veteran riders in their 40s and 50s. Some are married with children.

Being a bike messenger-"messenging," to use their own word-requires energy high enough to pedal 30-50 miles a day, consummate knowledge of the city and considerable bike-handling skills.

But few firms pay well. Most bikers make between $250 and $400 each week. Companies typically pay by the delivery, or "tag." Commissions used to average 50 percent of the price charged to the customer but have been drifting down to the high 30-percent range.
In most cases messengers get minimal (or no) benefits-no vacation, no sick days, and no health insurance for this very dangerous job.
Injuries are routine for bicycle messengers, deaths far more common than they should be for a young workforce. All day, each day they negotiate a hostile environment. Rain-slick streets, erratic pedestrians, cars and MUNI buses all cause on-the-job accidents, some of them fatal.

Walkers most often work downtown in the Financial District. They team up with drivers, going into high-rises to pick up packages so the drivers don't have to spend time and money parking. Sometimes they're required to move deliveries weighing as much as 300 pounds.
Walkers also do point-to-point deliveries in downtown's most crowded blocks.

Motorcycle Couriers
Motorcycles are most often used to take small packages long distances quickly.

Car Couriers (aka Drivers)
Drivers are twice as numerous as the bike messengers, and far more dispersed, but share their basic beef. Take-home pay has held steady for years. Breaks only occur as deductions on their paychecks. Most drivers have to use their own cars, and the mileage allowance barely covers wear and tear. They can easily put on 250 miles in a typical 11- or 12-hour workday.

Car couriers as a group are older than the bicycle messengers, and more likely to be supporting children. More are people of color, but fewer are women.

Dispatchers, Order Takers and Office Staff
Dispatchers and order takers control the workflow in a courier company, getting delivery orders from the people who answer the phone and relaying them to drivers and bikers.

Under the most common system, order takers deal with courier clients, while the dispatcher keeps track of all the messengers and assigns deliveries, as well as maintaining computer records of what's going where, troubleshooting and dealing with anxious or upset clients. Most dispatchers work with few breaks. At DMS, dispatchers must take more than 40 orders a day while they handle the standard dispatch duties. If they can't handle the extra work, they risk being fired.

The speed-up at DMS typifies the way working conditions are deteriorating as consolidators gain power-because the delivery companies are trying to squeeze more out of their couriers and office staff in order to increase profits for their shareholders.

IV. Labor Law Violations: Standard Operating Procedure
Investigations by the ILWU revealed that many courier companies routinely flout state and federal labor law. The union and numerous messengers who suffered from these abuses are filing suit against three companies to stop the illegal practices, among them:

Violations of Overtime Law
Some companies don't follow the law when calculating overtime for couriers. They misrepresent messengers as minimum-wage employees, when in fact they work on piece rates.

State and federal law requires that employees receive a half-time premium for each hour of work over 40 hours in a week. (Before Jan. 1, 1998, California required employers to pay overtime if workers exceeded eight hours in a day.)

To calculate overtime properly for piece-rate workers like couriers, employers must add the workers' total earnings and divide by total hours worked in a pay period to get an hourly rate. Overtime should be paid at time-and-a-half for each OT hour worked.

Rather than follow this procedure, some companies calculate overtime as if messengers were minimum wage workers. They issue paychecks showing 40 hours at minimum wage, plus overtime hours at one-and-a-half times minimum wage. They give the couriers the rest of their earnings for the pay period as a "bonus."

Failure to pay mileage for use of vehicles
Some companies claim to pay drivers for mileage when in fact they deduct this amount from what they already owe the drivers. They simply show it as a separate item on the paychecks.

Failure to properly calculate and pay commissions
Some companies calculate and pay messengers' commissions on a rate lower than that actually charged to the client.

Making pay deductions for costs necessary for work
Under state law, any fees charged to employees for use of equipment or facilities necessary for work are illegal. So are "processing fees" for wage advances. Several companies regularly charge drivers "gate fees" for using company cars, or require bicycle messengers to pay deposits for pagers or radios, or charge the workers for advances.

Failure to pay for losses and equipment damages occurring on the job
State law requires employers to compensate employees who suffer losses as a consequence of their work, such as having vehicles towed, damaged or stolen at work. Some companies don't do this.

V. The Organizing Campaign: raising industry standards
To bring justice and better working conditions to the courier industry, the ILWU has formed a partnership with the messengers' own organizations, the San Francisco Bicycle Messengers Association (SFBMA) and the United Bay Area Delivery Drivers (UBADD).
Several times over the last 10 years, messengers have responded collectively to city government stupidity or management outrages. They organized the SFBMA in 1990 to counter the employers' association. In its eight-year history, the SFBMA has organized numerous benefits, memorials for bikers killed on the job, and, in its most ambitious effort, the 1996 Cycle Messenger World Championships. In April 1998, the SFBMA signed an affiliation agreement with the ILWU, which will further their common organizing goals while allowing SFBMA to retain its own identity.

Following the bikers' example, the drivers organized the "United Bay Area Delivery Drivers," or UBADD, in the fall of 1998. They're putting out their own newsletter, Ignition, paralleling the bikers' newsletter Cognition, and working closely with the ILWU.

Previous organizing attempts showed the necessity of cooperation between bicycle messengers and drivers. This new partnership represents a large step towards their shared goal: an industry-wide labor contract between the employers and ILWU warehouse Local 6.

Such a contract will force the companies to compete on service rather than on how much they can discount wages and tags. It will lock in decent standards-and put responsibility for industry conditions where it belongs: on the clients. With an industry-wide contract in place, courier companies will need to look to their clients for the extra change to pay couriers decent tags, and provide the benefits that every hard-working person deserves.

Amber Free zone flyer by Stephanie and America, 1997


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