Cognition Issue 3
Message from your
Greetings to all messengers. As you president, I think it's my duty (whether I like it or not) to be in contact with all of you as much as possible. So I'll submit a "Message from your president" to each issue of Cognition. I will try to speak and act on behalf of our goals - not just our goals on the job but also our off the job goals (such as increasing our community services).
I wanted this first message to be about the SFBMA's general goals and ideals as expressed in our recently approved Constitution and Mission Statement, but that will ahve to wait. Right now the constant changes affecting our messenger profession need immediate attention.
Some of these changes are being caused by outside forces that have never been part of our business. In the past messenger company owners were all familiar to us. Some companies are still like this.
This does not mean things are perfeect when the owner (capital) is someone with messenger experience (labor), but at least we know where they are coming from and they know where we are coming from. Because of the commission system we also knew where we stood with the customers.
Now the same changes that have harmed American workers in the 80s and 90s are infecting the messenger industry. Outside investors have begun to take over several companies. Will the messenger life becomes the McMessenger industry?
The latest - and biggest - chapters in the McMessenger story is the DMS/RMS takeover. Dispatch Management Services/Road Management Services is a New Zealand group which started innocently enough by offering to minimize office costs and procedures for several independent companies. Then last December they bought Aero.
DMS/RMS has become the largest ever messenger business in the Bay Area, and now they have changed the payment system for their messengers. The commission system has been replaced by the UPG (Universal Payout Grid) method that pays each messenger according to where the tag's pickup and delivery occur. This means that DMS/RMS can now jack up prices without informing their messengers. We all know that we're the reason companies can afford to increase prices. Don't take my word for it - look at the companies websites. They advertise our skills to the customers.
Another problem with the UPG is simple arithmetic and common sense. It's embarrassing low. A financial District one hour tags pays a paltry $2.00 to the messenger. A one hour to Stonestown pays the messenger only $9.00. And that's the highest one hour tag in the entire city. Some people are asking "Did DMS take over Aero or did Aero take over DMS?"
Many of us remember working with DMS/RMS managers in the 80s. At the time we all knew $2 was too low for a tag. It's one reason why many companies are started. If $2 was too low for a tag in the days of drop a dime phone calls and 60 cent beer, why is the self-proclaimed messenger industry "leader" suddenly in favor of it now?
Other SFBMA business - I would like to talk with all other SFBMA officers about sponsoring an open debate of the UPG by SFBMA members vs. DMS/RMS management.
Think all cross-USA to CMWC cyclists should be roving delegates from the SFBMA (whether they like it or not!) when travelling through cities and towns with messengers. There are many more of us in the USA than there were a short 3 years ago. Bike messengers are now in Cincinnati, Memphis, Little Rock, Pittsburgh (a town with good hills and on the way to DC), Cleveland, Tulsa and other cities rising from the economic devastation of the Rust Bowl era with help by messengers. Seattle has long had messnegers and Ann Arbor, Michigan may still have messengers. And there are BMAs in at least Denver (I plan to be there in July), Chicago and Minneapolis.
C. U. later, God willing - Howard
On February 4th 1998, the following were elected: Howard Williams - President; Lance Schroeder - Treasurer; Adbul Mubdi Abdullah-Muhammed - Secretary; Bok Choy Matheson - Executive Director. The Board was elected at two different meetings, and now stands at 7: Stuart Coulthard, Daniel Thompson, Aaron H., Kali Berkowitz, Eric Scudder, Joel Metz, and America Meredith.
After a year as a (somewhat regularly) meeting organization, the SFBMA has begun to assert itself. The SFBMA now has clear demands, officers, a newsletter, its own customized stationery, and - now that the deal with the ILWU has been signed - a meeting place, access to office equipment, and full legal defense. we are on the move?
I pose this as a question because despite having surmounted a few hurdles, the SFBMA still lacks a clear sense of direction and movement. It's often said at meeting thats "folks should tell their friends what's going on". a nice sentiment no doubt, but in the absense of clear strategy and course of action, there isn't really much to tell.
Having been a messenger for the better part of the past 4.5 years, my sense is that most messengers know that shit is fucked up, but most aren't going to get "involved" unless there is something happenning that makes sense and doesn't look weak.
Anyone can see that the messenger industry is a scam: downtown business - especially the large, high-volume firms - is afforded a cheap, flexible means of delivering its shit and the courier company owners, to varying degrees, are raking it in. Meanwhile, most couriers exist from paycheck to paycheck with few assurances aside from the inherent danger of the job. Inertia, cynicism, and lack of cohesion are among the principal reasons this situation is allowed to persist.
If the SFBMA is going to break this impasse, it must be clear about what it's doing. After working all day most folks aren't terribly eager to attend a meeting - especially one that feels like it's just going round and round. (i am not saying that's neccessarily the case, but often perception is a reality.)
Part of the problem,
in my view, is due to confusion over the nature of unionism and workers
collective action. All too often, unions foster the idea that building the
organizational capacity to make demands must occur entirely before any action
can be taken. In practice, this leads to a catch-22 situation in which actions
that could insprie greater participation and sense of power are endlessly
deferred because not everyone "has been organized."
Although bosses may snivel about unions, the smart one understand that stock unions methods can act as a stabilizing force by directing potential conflist into familiar and predictable channels. In this sense, our right to unionize can be seen as a necessary safety valve for the anger and frustration that wage-slavery inevitably generates. Instead of worrying about wildcat actions and other unanticipated events, unions in effect allow employers to brace for a drawn-out ritual of simulated conflict - with anti-union lawyers, PR hacks and other "consultants" on hand, of course.
If the SFBMA is going to be effective it is critical that it avoid being shoehorned into modes of organization that curtail rather than broaden its strength. Successful movements encourage tactical spontenaity, not unthinking deference to traditional forms that have proven inadequate. For this reason, I beleive that instead of stressing on gaining formal recognition through channels designed to box in and slow down collective activity, we should focus on building the power to make demands that will be heeded, not merely recognized.
It's important to have a full view of what we're up against. As messengers we have, in effect, two bosses: our particular employer that signs our checks, and downtown business which benefits from the current setup. Any significant demands on the courier companies, if ceded, will neccessarily impact downtown because the price of delivery will almost certainly increase. This will not be greeted gleefully!
Messengers are vital to the smooth functioning of San Francisco's corporate/business/financial center. Quite literally, some of the largest and most powerful capitalist institutions in the world have bases here. Unlike the poor wretch working in a fish sandwich store in Nowheresville, as messengers we are in a position to wield considerable social power if we choose to take an action. Our power will be arrayed not only against the parasitical courier company owners, but also against the entire exploitative downtown setup. Wouldn't it be fun to administer a cold slap to the business titans that rule this world?
To illustrate the power that workers possess, let me draw a dream scenario: If messengers, janitors, service workers, office plebes, transit workers, and all other wage-slaves that presently prop up downtown - whether presently unionized or not - were to take action together, and in explicit support of one another, the power of each group would be dramatically increased. The profiteers would be shitting in their pants, pleading to make a deal. Perhaps even more significantly, new organizational forms could arise to make broader, social demands on the corporate regime.
Of course, we are far from seeing a general strike in downtown San Francisco, but being practical isn't only boring, it's also truly a recipe for failure. We need to have as broad a view as possible and be ready to chart new territory. As messengers and as wage-workers we can make history, but only if we develop our collective power and use it.
Buildign the SFBMA can not happen without pushing demands and a strategy, and we can't rightly push demands and strategy without building the SFBMA. Hence, we need to do several things simultaneously. To conclude, I propose we:
1. Systematically publicize the SFBMA meeting places and times. This means a coordinated effort, and not simply posting a leaflet or two at the wall and hoping the word gets around.
2. Formulate a strategy for implementing the SFBMA demands. I think we need to build for a massive meeting at which time we set an ultimatum to courier company owners. Perhaps we would demand only one item of the overall SFBMA demands. This would be a clear basis for organizing. All messengers should be made to feel welcome - our goal is to cripple the courier companies' capacity to do business. Between the time that we issue the ultimatum and the deadline time we should organize and demonstrate our collective power, by any means neccessary.
3. Build a strike fund. Local 510 has already offered $600. In order to strike we will need resources to sustain ourselves.
4. Make contact with any and all sympathetic downtown workers. Make it clear that we will help them if they help us.
5. Realize that cynicism by itself is self-fulfilling and conformist!
- Ronnie R.
A lot has been going on at Dispatch Management Services (DMS/Road Management Services (RMS this year. By now, most of you know about the Aero takeover (there is a two year contract on that). Aero's prices have gone up a lot ($5 for a one hour downtown tag), and the messengers went to free-call at the end of April. The drivers were forced to buy the Aero vehicles or quit. Many of their messengers have quit!
The companies that have been with DMS for a while have also seen quite a few changes. RMS bought all the DMS companies except Lickety Split. That means Crosstown, Battery Point, Alpha, Zap, Studebaker and S-Car-Go are now considered brands, and not distinct companies, all owned by RMS. RMS is a corporation - stocks started at $12.50 a share and are now $21.
RMS has changed the couriers pay out system. All messenger now receive the same amount of pay for ech job they do no matter what brand they work for. It's called the Universal Payout Grid (UPG). The UPG is set up on what is called "effort-based pay", as opposed to the traditional percentage system. This means that there is no longer a direct correlation between what the client is charged and what the messenger is paid. Under the UPG there are 48 zones with over 2000 possible payouts while the clients are charged according to only 5 to 7 zones, depending on which brand they use. (Lickety Split was on it for about two weeks before they decided to go back to straight percentages.) Lots of confusion and pay fluctuations have followed.
The drivers are in the same boat, only their UPG spans the entire Bay Area. Many of them have seen a drop in pay. They have a meeting with management to discuss this situation, but nothing has come of it.
About four weeks ago the RMS employees started having unauthorized meetings at the ILWU hall at 255 9th St. Mostly bikers, but also drivers and office staff have attended. We are working on ways in the short term to see how badly we're being screwed, and in the long term to make more money.
At the same time the SFBMA has been attempting to get (RMS big-wig) Greg Austin in a public debate one the UPG, and has also asked RMS to raise the UPG payout.
to Strike Fund!
One of the biggest obstacles to taking collective action on the job is the fear of a loss of a paycheck - or more - and all that that entails. (In America circa 1998 we are all free to starve...) So, with visions of a strike fund dancing in my head, I wrote to the Political Action Committee of Local 510. This is the union that represents the folks that set up modular equipment at Moscone Center, among other places. I enclosed the last issue of Cognition and attached a note describing the aims of the SFBMA and asked for $400 to help us out in the event of a strike. The letter was received and read aloud at a well-attended union meeting, and after some discussion it was decided to up my request by 50% to $600! Thanks Local 510.
- Ronnie R.
In the early 80s, scumball economist/Reagan associate Alfred Laffer sketched on the back of a dinner napkin a theorem which allegedly demonstrated that massive tax decreases on big business and the rich would unleash economic expansion so bountiful that federal deficits would end forever. It came to be known, appropriately, as the Laffer curve, and was said to have had quite a hold over the "minds" residing in the White House during the Reagan years. The rest, as they say, is history.
Recognizing the pitfalls of quickly conceived economic models, I have nonetheless crafted my own. I call it Ronnie R's Meaningful Messenger Wage Theorem. With a few alterations, it is applicable to all forms of wage-slavery today. For these purposes, let us assume that we are trying to get the hourly wage for a given month:
Take your gross pay (ie pre-tax) and subtract taxes, the avg. $ spent monthly on bike maintenance, the avg. $ spent monthly getting to/from work, and the avg. $ spent monthly on messenger clothes/lock/etc. Seperately, add the hours on your pay stub, the hours spent doing paperwork, the average time spent monthly maintaining your bike, and the average time spent monthly getting to/from work. If you take the first number, and divide it by the second, the resulting number will be your actual hourly wage. Guaranteed.
- Ronnie R.