Messenger War, Messenger Peace???

"I was there..."

by Aaron Hackett and Natasha Dedrick, originally published in Citysplinter, Fall 2000



This has not been a terribly relaxing year for the managers and owners of San Francisco same-day courier companies. Nor has it been without occasional and even recurring delivery service breakdowns for downtown business. Yes, it's been a great year for San Francisco messengers! It has shown that messengers have power—we just gotta take it.

2000 has seen more strikes than ever before, and it's not over yet. On January 12, DMS (now CitySprint) messengers got things off with a bang by hitting management with a five-day wildcat strike. This action shut down the company's entire walker and biker boards and crippled the intown driver board. Ultra Ex (now Speedway) messengers, affiliated with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), have conducted pickets in front of company offices and repeated work stoppages that culminated in a 3-day strike in April. Messengers at Professional Messenger, also with the ILWU, have similarly pressured their bosses with pickets and walk-offs.

DMS/CitySprint intown messengers—walkers, bikers and drivers—have gotten a big pay-raise because of the January strike and subsequent turmoil. Downtown bike and foot work pays 50-70% more than prior to the strike. Also, DMS/CS messengers demanded and won winter pay equaling about $170 per month from December through March. And, after proving that management was taking money from new hires, DMS/CS was forced to cough up retroactive pay to numerous messengers.

Speedway and the ILWU signed a contract in May 2000, which among other things, increases payouts to bikers from 38% to 40.5% of the client bill, grants legal holiday and vacation pay, an improved health plan, and a small raise to hourly walkers.

In August 2000, Professional and the ILWU ratified a contract that abolishes daily fees charged to drivers using company vehicles, forces management to absorb costs of certain discounted clients, provides significant equipment compensation, modestly increases payouts, grants a better benefits package, and more.

These gains at three of the largest courier firms in San Francisco raise the standards for all messengers in this highly competitive, cutthroat industry. Some courier company owners have seized the opportunity to raise rates and passed on a raise to their workforce. The hope is that a few bones here and there will buy some loyalty and ward off organizing and collective action.

It is important that management's dream of a tranquil Fall and Winter 2000 not come true. The gains that have been won can be built upon—after all, we've only demonstrated a fraction of our potential power. Our power comes from the fact that not only the courier companies depend on us for their incomes, but that capitalist business requires our services.


San Francisco is a premier hub of international commerce and a base to many of the biggest and most powerful corporations on earth. The great bulk of the work we perform is directly or indirectly in the service of the legal, financial, administrative, and commercial needs of corporate capitalism. Chevron, The Gap, B of A, Bechtel, Charles Schwab, etc. need and expect a pliant workforce to help them function and communicate as they wish. And without hundreds and hundreds of couriers set in motion all year round the machine could not function.

Courier companies tum a profit—or attempt to—by managing a messenger workforce that is placed at the disposal of downtown business. The system of contracting delivery work through courier firms provides downtown with a cheap and flexible means of getting its shit from. here to there. With so many options, the big clients are able to leverage discounts and demand preferential treatment, while avoiding all overhead costs.

So what we have, is a set-up perfectly suited to the needs of business, with the courier owners skimming profit off the top. The absence of standards regulating the industry—except for ridiculously low federal minimums—means that intense competition for clients drives down conditions for all messengers. While it has been shown that real improvements can be extracted from our bosses via actions on a company-by-company basis, our individual victories are vulnerable as long as the rest of the industry remains unchanged. For this reason, organizing and collective action must occur at all the courier firms, moving in the direction of cross-industry activity that demonstrates our power in the face of the office towers and the courier company scammers.

While courier companies come and go, the need for courier labor is a constant. This is our power. The focus shouldn't be simply sealing deals with individual companies, but instead to constitute ourselves as a collective force that the courier owners—whomever they may be—must contend with. The question becomes how to best organize and assert our power to do this.


The wildcat strike at DMS/CS in January and the subsequent walk-offs and concerted pressure, we believe, provides an example of how messengers can quickly extract concessions from our bosses, while laying the basis for larger scale action. Frequently, we're told that organizing is a slow process, and that it's important to be patient. But impatience isn't necessarily a bad thing.

At the time of the strike, the ILWU was officially attempting to organize DMS. However, the snail's pace of the union recognition process was neither mobilizing nor harnessing the energies of DMS messengers. In April '99 the ILWU had union cards signed by most of the bikers and some of the drivers. However, the union drive never went past this stage. By the summer, many if not most of those who had signed cards had quit.

The lesson derived from this experience was that if we want power, we have to take it. A nucleus of.messengers was formed that began to organize. We got the phone numbers of our co-workers, threw a party, and organized meetings to discuss demands and strategy.

In early December, at a well-attended meeting at a local bar, a pledge to strike in support of agreed upon demands was circulated. Everyone in attendance signed. We were building for something tangible, something people could sink their teeth into. We weren't ceding power to lawyers or the National Labor Relations Board. There was nothing bureaucratic or obscure about what was being proposed. It was going to happen soon, and we were going to do it!

Only a month elapsed between the circulation of the pledge to strike and our strike action. In that time, we talked with as many fellow employees as possible, shored up support, developed our demands, and prepared to act.

On January 12, 2000, without warning, every DMS/CS walking and bicycle messenger with only one exception—out of more than thirty on the payroll—struck. Many in-town and regional drivers participated by slowing down or stopping altogether. All this, combined with creative use of company communications, cut business by 80%. Woohoo!! The vice president of DMS/CS was flown out from the New York headquarters to plead for us to return to work.

The strike lasted five days. It wasn't easy, but we stuck together. The support we received from messengers throughout the city was awesome. We demonstrated to DMS/CS management that messengers are a force to be reckoned with. We organized and took action much quicker than most thought possible, and it paid off. We didn't have some secret formula or experience in labor organizing—we had vision and a belief in our power.

Our strike action was explicitly in support of demands on DMS/CS for immediate improvement in our working conditions. We punched real concessions out of management by asserting our power in an unpredictable and rapid way. There were no negotiations; DMS/CS messengers gave up nothing in return. We haven't gotten everything we want or demanded, but we are not bound by a no-strike clause or a contract with stipulations that will constrain us from fighting in the future.


from Citysplinter, Fall 2000


Despite the success of the DMS/CS strike, the ILWU saw our action as a problem because it didn't conform to the union's strategy for improving conditions in the courier industry. While the ILWU deserves credit for attempting to organize an industry as messy as this one, the tensions that developed raise important issues as to how to best unleash our power as messengers.

The ILWU's goal is to organize the entire same-day courier industry—starting with the biggest messenger firms. In order to set labor standards for the entire have industry, the union seeks a contract that encompasses the entire industry. To win a contract, the union must be officially recognized as the bargaining agent representing the workers interests. The idea is to negotiate a contract with the employer that codifies modest gains on a variety of issues like compensation, benefits, seniority, vacation pay, etc. (Note: The one-year contracts at Pro and Speedway contain no-strike clauses.) Once a contract is signed, the union moves on to organize the next company with the hope of pulling more and more of the courier industry under the union umbrella.

The first step in a union drive is getting employees at a given shop to sign union recognition cards. When and if the union is able to get enough cards signed it files for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, arranges that election, and builds support for a yes vote. (The NLRB "mediates" between unions and companies by enforcing labor laws.) If the workers vote for the union the appeal process begins, with each side contesting ballots and other fun stuff. If the union victory holds, the company and the workers enter into collective bargaining.

It is not until this stage that the union workers are mobilized to fight (through strikes and slow downs). Things conclude when and if enough compromises been made that both sides finally agree to a contract. Because the DMS/CS strike was not a recognized union and did not seek a contractual agreement, the ILWU saw it as a barrier to organizing for industry-wide change. We strongly disagree with this assessment.

It's tempting to think that the DMS/CS action could just as well have been a union action, but it would be inaccurate to do so. Unlike Speedway, DMS/CS at the time of the strike didn't have a stable workforce. A large percentage of the messengers at DMS/CS were relatively new and had no idea how long they would stick around. Therefore, many had little interest in enduring the ploddingly slow union recognition process that leads to a contract. In this sense, the DMS/CS workforce—marked by high levels of turnover and transience—was typical of San Francisco messengers. If we had followed standard union procedures there would have been no fuel to act as we did.-

The DMS/CS strike shows that it is possible for messengers to take action without going through the state-sanctioned union recognition process and make gains without signing a contract. In an attempt to finance the big raise that we won, management increased prices. In turn, courier company owners across the industry have felt emboldened to do the same. In what sense is that a barrier to industry-wide improvements?


The strongest statement we can send the courier company owners and the businesses that contract through them is to SHUT DOWN the entire same-day courier industry and place demands for immediate respect and change. Actions on a company-by-company basis have been effective but they are limited and draw upon the energies of only a fraction of the overall messenger workforce. The impact of isolated strikes is diminished when the targeted company sends its work to other courier firms. Plus, messengers that boldly take action at one company alone, take a hit as they come back to a workplace that has lost clients (like at OMS/CS and Speedway). All this points to the need for more generalized, large-scale activity that cannot be ignored. An industry-wide strike would demonstrate our power and put us in position to determine the work conditions for this industry.

Our concern with the ILWU strategy is that its twin pillars—of union recognition and the no-strike contract—blocks the possibility of industry-wide action, which is the most powerful means for asserting our power as messengers. Strict adherence to the legal-bureaucratic process of obtaining union recognition channels discontent onto terrain that is predictable to our bosses. Too often the pursuit of recognition—because it is so slow and feels outside the control of the workers—dampens resolve and causes people to lose interest in all. Union campaigns often wither on the vine simply because a large percentage of the workforce tires of waiting and moves on. So how likely is large-scale action if union recognition is seen as a necessary requirement?

Additionally, the no-strike clause contained in union contracts effectively takes union workers out of circulation and grant big assurances to the bosses. With no-strike clauses, workers are legally bound not to strike (although they have the right to honor picket lines), and if they do, the union can be sued for breach of contract. For this reason, in most cases, the union would oppose strikes for fear of the financial losses that would likely result. So we end up with the organization representing the workers telling workers not to assert their power. Although the contracts at Pro and Speedway are hailed as the harbinger of industry-wide change, in the event of industry-wide action, the messengers at the city's two unionized firms would be legally bound not to participate!


from Citysplinter, Fall 2000

The threat of unionization that has come with the ILWU's involvement over the last two years has caused some courier companies to make improvements just to ward off a union drive. And to some extent, the pay-raise at DMS/CS is due to management's fear of exactly that. However, our power as workers is based in our capacity to take collective action on our own terms. If as messengers we are to fight for better conditions and greater power we should do so without constraints designed to keep us in check.

Messengers are especially well positioned now to make amazing things happen by building on the organization and experiences of folks already in the thick of it. Actions at one company can make gains; this has already been proven true. But so long as insanely exploitative conditions exist anywhere, the standards for all messengers are pulled down. That's why organization and action needs to involve workers from multiple companies simultaneously. In order to win industry standards, we need industry-wide action.

Momentum is key to successful movements for change. It is imperative that the Fall and Winter 2000 see even greater levels of activity, organization, and—of course—STRIKES! We believe that the successes of the DMS/CS wildcat action prove that change can be made quickly, and can pave the way for larger, cross-industry action. Those who say that it can’t be done, or that change occurs slowly, are only engaging in self-fulfilling prophecy. When we limit what we think is possible, we limit what is possible.