San Francisco Bay Guardian * December 6, 2000

Pedal Power
Treated like "disposable people," bike couriers ramp up union efforts

By A. Clay Thompson

Atop the marble steps of the Hall of Justice Dec. 1, bike messengers placed a hand-painted memorial plaque honoring their fallen – most of them killed by motor vehicles. The most recent name on the monument was that of Chris Roberston, a 30-year-old grocery stocker and ex-messenger, slain two weeks earlier by truck driver Rueben Espinoza.


Robertson's death occurred on the night of Nov. 17 as he and a posse of couriers rode to Mission Rock to memorialize Joe Woods, a veteran of the industry who'd been killed Nov. 9 outside his Bernal Heights home during a robbery. As the mini Critical Mass pedaled down Fourth Street, Espinoza pulled up behind them in a moving truck – and apparently got pissed that his journey was slowed by the group of 20 to 40 cyclists. After a verbal confrontation, the driver hurled a chunk of wood at Robertson and then, to their horror, ran the man down – either intentionally or by accident – pulverizing him beneath the wheels of his semi truck.


Anger over the young man's death drew some 200 cyclists to the courthouse for a raucous – "Fuck the police!" was a common refrain – noontime rally. "What I saw was clearly intentional," said courier Ron Salkin, a friend of Robertson's and a witness to his killing. "This guy turned his truck right into Chris and preceded that by throwing a block of wood at him." Espinoza is currently free on $15,000 bail, as prosecutors and police investigate.


The furor over Robertson's slaying comes during a period of upheaval in his former industry, with two courier companies, Express Network Inc. and First Legal Support Services, both of which specialize in transporting legal documents, locked in bitter labor disputes. Messengers at Express Network, in the midst of a unionization drive, have filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board charging the company with unfair work practices. At First Legal couriers are fighting what they call a "preemptive strike" to keep them from organizing.


"For a legal services company, you'd think they could pay us legally," said Jeff Levin, a driver for Express Network. "We don't get any overtime; we don't get reimbursed for our mileage on our vehicles; we don't get any vacation days or sick days. Really, they treat us like we're disposable people." According to state law, businesses must pay time and a half to employees who work more than eight hours a day and must compensate drivers for wear and tear on their vehicles.


The company, which has branches in San Diego, Sacramento, Santa Ana, and Los Angeles, employs 12 bicycle messengers and 10 drivers in San Francisco. Levin and cohorts, who filed for a union election Nov. 16, are seeking to affiliate with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 6, which has spent the past two years organizing the same-day delivery industry.


In their complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, workers charge Express Network with threatening to yank benefits if they join up with the local.  The corporation had no comment. "Our position, quite frankly, is we don't want to handle our personnel matters in the press," said Daniel Coleman, chief administrative officer for Express Network.


While couriers at Express Network are unionizing, messengers at First Legal may not have that opportunity. The company, which has offices here and in Los Angeles, is forcing its employees to become independent contractors – and independent contractors can't form a union. "It's a preemptive strike," said Damon Voutor, a courier with First Legal and the president of the San Francisco Bicycle Messenger Association. "We asked them point blank, 'Are you giving us this ultimatum because you're afraid of a union?' They said, 'Yes.' "


Regional manager David Tait denies the charge, saying the move was spurred by escalating insurance costs. "I've expressed to all my employees that they should pursue whatever they feel in their heart – and they'll never be mistreated by my company for pursuing their beliefs.... If we choose to use independent contractors for most of our labor force, I'd like them to respect that."


Tait is not enthusiastic about the possibility that his bikers and drivers might hook up with organized labor. "I don't believe any small messenger service in our industry can benefit from a union. Because a union sets wages, sets pricing, and two people spin out of your office and start their own company, and you can't compete with them."


While Tait sees the situation as a routine cost-cutting measure, Voutor and colleagues have quite a different perspective. "The day before Thanksgiving management began calling us in one by one and said, 'If you don't sign these documents [to become contractors] within one hour, you're fired.' So I was fired, and two other employees were fired. We thought that was a bullying and intimidating tactic, and hence we lost our jobs," Voutor said.


"Come Friday morning, which is payday, we went to pick up our checks, and they said, 'You can have your jobs back if you sign these documents.' ... We signed the documents, but at the top wrote 'signed under duress and protest' – making the documents null and void off the bat." By Nov. 29, with Voutor and pals back on the job, the company was again demanding that workers make a binding agreement to become independent contractors, prompting a union rep and a horde of angry messengers, many of them from other companies, to crash the staff meeting.


Asked what was going to happen next, Voutor played his cards close to his chest. "We're gonna watch and wait," he said. "Ultimately the power is in the hands of us workers. If they don't have messengers to do their work, they won't have a company to run."



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