Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Spark Last Time - Organizing Bike Messengers

San Francisco in 1989 was an amazing place to be a 20 year-old. Punk rock was abundant, striated and diverse. Cops and military personnel didn’t sport tribal tattoos yet, and funny colored hair got funny looks and potential beat-downs. Chicago was little more than a vague literary reference to Carl Sandberg to me, besides being hometown to the band Big Black. It wasn’t part of any plan of mine to work as a messenger for eight years there. But that’s what the mighty Rhythm of Life had in store for me after briefly cutting my teeth, so to speak, as a rookie biker-by-the-bay.

The punk ethos of originality and non-conformism pervaded the youth, art and music scenes of late 80s San Francisco and was delicately intertwined into a variety of occupations that allowed a liberated—if modest—lifestyle. As a teen runaway and college dropout with a spider-web tattooed on the side of his head, I found being a bike messenger best fit my values. I wanted to be free from responsibility for America’s cruel society – a culture that seemed to reward those who assimilated without considering what their comfort cost the rest of the world.

The reality, of course, was that I merely became a member of the service class for the downtown corporate milieu. It didn’t take long to figure this out, but I accepted my role because I could still dress, drink, and drive my bike any way I pleased. As a rookie, I was too pre-occupied with the superficial side of punk rock and maintaining the personae of angry sexiness to think broadly about the industry I was in. “No future”, right?

Elder riders, however, were beginning to have had enough. They were tired of a “liberal” city that sent cops on dirt bikes after us to selectively enforce traffic laws that conflicted with the very nature of our occupation. Tired of a barely-livable pay rate that gave us a 50% commission on ridiculously low prices. And tired of working a job that was as dangerous as a fireman’s, but when friends were injured or even killed on the streets there was no affordable insurance to cover them or their families.

In the much-glorified era that ended just before I entered the scene (there always is one, isn’t there? – I’ve biked through countless of them in 17 years) a phenomenon called “road-rash bashes” had begun. These were beer and pot-fuelled street races after work, usually on a Friday, with little or no planning and bragging rights for a few weeks as the grand prize. Occasionally they were followed by messenger-band parties at an apartment or dive bar. Canadian messengers would later dub these “alley-cat scrambles” and they have evolved into today’s “alleycat” with themes, prizes, grandiose parties and even press coverage. The friendly competition of the road-rash bashes was certainly the inspiration for the annual cycle messenger world championships (CMWC) which began as an annual event in 1992, but I feel it’s worth noting that messenger races have proven to be primarily apolitical social events. This opinion comes in hindsight, however.

When messengers gathered at road rash bashes to drink and compete, they also gathered to commiserate, and this fact was not overlooked by the San Francisco veterans who, in 1990, were poised to politicize this counter-culture community toward some kind of long-term trade association. As the races became more frequent, a newsletter, Mercury Rising, came out, and the seed for the San Francisco Bike Messenger Association (SFBMA) was sown.

Direct action was taken against a concrete opponent, the police. Protest rides (a mere year before the first “Critical Mass” ride occurred) were organized to get the motor-cops off our backs. Bike messengers demanded a meeting with Mayor Agnos, and though not granted, the cops eased off and more messengers began to take the SFBMA seriously.

One of its founders, Howard Williams, graciously let me crash in his tent on a particularly rainy Memorial Day weekend group ride to the Russian River. I stayed up most of the night talking with him about world politics and the working-class reality of our unorganized, unrepresented manual labor sector of the service industry. The struggle and minor victory against police harassment against the bike messenger industry was just a jumping-off point for what he and others saw as a real movement to make our job more rewarding and secure.

I didn’t get involved in any of what he and other began though. Perhaps I was an insecure one-year man unsure of commanding even the tiniest bit of vanguard leadership, or maybe it was the fact I was looking to make a geographic escape from what was appearing to be an eternal druggy-hippie setting. I looked toward the unadorned, hard-drinking, and real working-class city I saw in Chicago, with an Algrenesque vision before I had even read Algren….so in December of 1990, I booked.

Upon arrival and ready to deliver, I was met with a more working class Black and Latino crew than I’d known in San Francisco. Inspired by the organizing that began before I left San Francisco and with a righteous proletarian vision, I had a new fearless attitude of utopian camaraderie. Initially this older, more weary and wary crowd of mostly men in their 30s saw the politics of a mohawked 21-year old white boy as merely comical. Many of them were supporting children so even though they had a strong sense of what needed improvement and what they wanted, they were skeptical of radical ideas and reluctant to take immediate action. They had little faith in organizing the unorganized. They knew, however, that the price for delivery hadn’t and wasn’t going up any time soon…and bills had to be paid.

Following S.F.’s model of organizing a social fellowship first, I began making myself known, talking my talk and sharing beers in bars and alleys. At first, not a one had any good thoughts toward racing their bikes after work. A lot of guys left their wheels at the company office and took the el home. I did my best to make connections between the majority of Black and Latino workers and the minority of white suburban kids. It wasn’t too difficult: If you could ride your bike everyday thorough one Chicago winter, you were a bad-ass and you knew it. Nothing more punk rock or gangsta than that!

I found “the river”: a tiny, shrouded beach of gravel and broken glass on the Chicago River at the end of Erie street below the cul-de-sac formed by a demolished bridge (which is now, of course, the park for a condominium). Here all sorts of odd messenger-related characters gathered nightly and even in between deliveries to drink.

Some of the more notable were: “Wolf” – a grizzled black rider in his late forties with a scarred upper lip like that of a trumpet player from some bad face-planting with the asphalt. “Caesar” was a former Latin King member who eased out of the gang life and into the more working-stiff world of ours. “Rock and Roll”, a tall chattering, white, veteran of 15 years or so claimed to run the marathon every year and supposedly had a steel plate in his head from getting smashed between two moving buses. “Angel” was a Latino former rider-turned bike mechanic and sometimes dispatcher, and “Ranger Rick” – a flamboyantly gay white guy in his 30s added his spin on class to the spot. I got to know scores of other true individuals as they passed through there.

Different cliques from different neighborhoods hung out for a break in various alleys in the loop. For the next two years I made the rounds trying to get to know them all, and convince them that I was more than my nickname “C.Y.B.”(crazy white boy-sic). I wanted them to know that I was on their side and could be trusted to have their backs if we all got together and challenged management.

In August of 1992 I went to the free weekly, the Chicago Reader, with a story. Alderman Burt Natarus was introducing legislation to force bicycle messengers and only messengers to wear helmets and reflective vests or lettering with 2-inch tall identification numbers. A reporter listened to my side of the story, and his article included Natarus’ response to my charges that the helmet requirements were discriminatory against a specific workforce, and that the I.D. numbers were unfair to us as underpaid and unorganized workers.

I argued that companies could reduce accident risks far better with a higher price per delivery and decent benefits. Numbers and helmets (and our inevitable refusal to wear them) would just get veteran messengers fired for coping with the industry’s frenetic business pace and bring more unprofessional amateurs into the field. Natarus appealed to the public’s ever-lurking righteousness and fear by calling us “arrogant and dangerous.” His legislation passed.

Then, before a broader network of couriers was prepared and before I knew what was happening, a union drive began at a company called Deadline Express in 1993. The connection of parity was drawn between bikers and drivers, and meetings were held with SEIU reps. It can be difficult to show drivers the common grievances they share with their motor-less and often differently classified biker coworkers. Within a few months of information gathering though, a petition for union membership was called for.

One of the most vocal drivers in favor of a union was assaulted by the company owner’s son in the office parking lot and was seriously hurt. I’m sure this assault intimidated some and strengthened the resolve of others. Though I was not directly involved and only got my facts on progress sparingly and with reservation from those sharing them, I learned the meeting was “stacked” when it came time to vote for the union. A few ex-employees were brought in to vote in favor of organization to push past the necessary 66% majority needed. True of not, company lawyers called out the illegality of this tactic. After a few more talks, the SEIU could no longer continue the campaign, and the activist bikers and drivers were gradually witch-hunted out by being denied adequate work to maintain a decent standard of living.

About this time, word of mouth reports spread that in New York City the Teamsters and a company called Orbit-Light Speed were trying to organize. We didn’t have listservs or websites at the time, but the rumors fueled excitement.

Despite our technological limitations, messengers in other cities were beginning to communicate and host each other for alleycats. In late October 1994, a former Washington D.C. messenger-turned dispatcher for SEKO threw one in Chicago. About a dozen D.C. couriers showed up on a dark and dreary sleeting evening, including Rebecca Riley, author of Nerves Of Steel. Somewhat of a sausage party ensued afterward, Rebecca being one of I think two females there, but the turnout was multiracial and cross-national, and helped Chicago riders envision future organization and communication. Though the social fellowship was building, a union movement was not born that night, however. It also wasn’t for me to just build one crafted to my liking all by myself.

More networking continued and by 1995 a group of eight of us drove up to Toronto for the third annual Cycle Messenger World Championship (CMWC). Now more of us were talking about what messengers in other (specifically European) nations had as far as pay, insurance and even pensions. I came back with ‘zine style newsletters from Toronto, London and San Francisco (they had a new one called Voice Of Da), impressing upon me that a publication was vital to organizational growth. Hey, it was a classic lesson of Lenin’s! But I didn’t have the savvy or discipline at the time to get up and start one myself. I also doubted anything produced by a transplanted Californian such as myself would be taken seriously by the veteran riders, even though by then I had been consistently working in Chicago for 5 years.

Another two years or so rolled by with bike cops pulling us over and fining us for not wearing our helmets or vests. Then, one day in January of 1997, a SEKO rider named Barry McMenamin popped up with 100 issues of a newsletter called Dead Air, showcasing United States Messengers For Safe Streets (USMASS) meetings. I had avoided the first meeting because I was an open member of a revolutionary socialist group, and also because I hated the name. It was too patriotic and un-punk! I mean, “safe streets?” But I paid close attention to word of mouth reports on the turnout, which had been around 30 guys out of a 400-500 member workforce – not bad at all.

In Dead Air I read about what had been discussed. The group claimed to not be a union or a labor movement, but an industry movement seeking to keep meeting with an open agenda. Barry and his cohort, a Gulf War I veteran named Wood E. Vail, may not have had anything near my radical politics, but they had a no-nonsense rhetoric. And they were Chicagoans as far as anybody knew. The whole business just needed some tightening up, in my not-so-humble opinion.

So that was enough for me. I had stayed in touch with Howard Williams in San Francisco and had heard about the scuffles, victories and growing pains that would eventually transform the SFBMA from a loose social network to a recognized union within the Longshoremen’s local.

I attended the next USMASS meeting and urged the group to become the Windy City Bike Messenger Association, to unite with all other BMAs around the world (and leave the name CBMA to another “C” city like Cleveland, I guess…). It was agreed by popular vote to establish Robert’s Rules for the weekly meetings’ conduct. Dead Air became a magazine and the official organ of the group, a mix of cloaked organizational opinions, industry tips, and creative expression. Barry, John Greenfield, and I steered the editorship of the next two issues, with John and I taking over with issue four after Barry suddenly left the scene. Greenfield took complete control of the publication’s helm for some issues after seven, when I left for NYC. Other hands took over when he in turn minimized his involvement.

My self-ordained role was three-fold: radical columnist to balance John and Barry’s more liberal voices, poetry and short story editor, and illustrator of a comic strip “Bazooka Josephine” intended to be a voice for the underappreciated female minority in the Chicago messenger palette.

The idea for ‘Jo’ was that female messengers would send me funny but real stories from the job for me to illustrate. I wanted to introduce both compassion for women doing what was traditionally a man’s job and to bring the internationalism of our industry home to all by mentioning the authoress’ city with her name in the byline. Looking back, I’m a bit embarrassed by some of the stories I invented when I had no contributions, but my intentions were always respectful and comradely.

I may have had union organizing as my ultimate goal, but I understood that few around me saw that far ahead or made the links that I did, so I focused on building our BMA membership around the issues of the day. Without a doubt, the number one grievance was our being singled out, fined and even taken to jail for not wearing our helmets or numbers. In Dead Air we called for more voices to join us in discussing tactics to erase the ordinance. I personally lampooned the hypocrisy of one specific officer and his proven threat to public safety in an early cartoon and editorial. This officer pulled me aside one day and in a stunning display of cluelessness or failed intimidation, instructed me to warn “Captain Jack” that he was on the lookout for him.

All while working 45 hours a week on the streets, our small cadre was beginning to organize new alleycat races and charity fund concerts to improve our civic image and public relations. I personally put together the Chi-Town Showdown and Hell-Cat alley cats over Memorial Day and Halloween of 1997. At a weekly messenger’s night at Phyllis’ Musical Inn we featured bands and performers with bike messenger in them like Pruno, The Geezers, and The Alkaline Trio. Greenfield put together larger benefit concerts at other venues like The Empty Bottle. One of my proudest life moments was being part of our raising a little over $600 at one show for the Merrilac Foundation, a family survivors of physical abuse center on the west side. The sister who ran the treasury of the program told me that while many thousands of dollars were annually contributed by Chicago Bears and Bulls, I was the first “professional athlete” that she had met! Other Cycle Courier Concerts were to follow.

I would say that well over a dozen messengers besides John Greenfield and myself put lots of energy and input into making this stuff happen. I would be a total jerk if I didn’t mention the always cheery and willing energy of Super Dave Shanahan and his friend Marley here. Or the very supportive and anonymous crews of the messenger centers at Sears Tower and 161 N. Clark, for allowing us to establish bulletin boards there. There were also individuals such as Jim Daniels, Donny Quixote and Guenevere who carried our common cause as Greenfield and I each left the scene. Hardworking folks selflessly put effort into maintaining some kind of framework for a mass of messengers to join and build to an undecided next level.

But despite such efforts, the alleycats, concerts, and our representing at CMWCs were not proving to be viable tools for expanding the actual working membership of the BMA. We joined the now worldwide “Critical Mass” rides with a contingent of our ranks, but failed to do any protesting for ourselves as the SFBMA had.

To my disappointment, the complacency I’d first seen when I’d moved from San Francisco seemed to be settling back in. The meeting place moved a few times, which couldn’t have helped, eventually settling in Rossi’s bar on State and Kinzie, but where was everybody? Perhaps the average working class veteran messenger was put off by some youthful cliquishness that pervaded the alleycats. It may even have been that the bands Greenfield and I showcased every Tuesday at our concert nights at Phyllis’ weren’t representational enough of Chicago’s racial and cultural cross-section. I can’t really say, other than that one cannot build a movement that isn’t there in the first place.

It does seem to me now that our social network stratagem for building the organization could only go so far without some real shop-floor activism and guts. ‘Joe’ or ‘Jo messenger’- committed to his gig for the long haul, wasn’t seeing any actions on our part that addressed his or her economic needs. And we were exhausting ourselves trying to look fun and attractive in order to bring them in to help us do just that.

The helmet and I.D. number ordinance is till in effect to this day. The price for delivery has not kept up with inflation and is only a couple dollars more than it was in 1980. Messengers still have no viable health insurance or reasonable pay floor. It is my current understanding that a Chicago Couriers Union has been established, and has joined a class action lawsuit against the umbrella corporation MICA for the illegal tax practices at thousands of messengers’ expense. I wish them success with this and strength from the lessons of our WCBMA experience, so that Chicago messengers finally get the fair shake they earn every single hour. There is so much that needs to be done.

In closing, whatever the reason or reasons, the WCBMA I was a part of never developed the large numbers of committed persons it needed to take off as the effective labor trade guild I had envisioned it to be. But it wasn’t without purpose or pleasure. It was an exhilarating, fun and hilarious fourteen months of my life and hopefully just one stage in a larger process for many others. It can be a process that changes suddenly. In my case, forces beyond my comprehension guided me to a point where I knew it was time to move on. The opportunity to add New York City to my personal resume of messenger experience had presented itself to me.

So in March of 1998, entranced by the enormity and adrenaline of the streets of Manhattan, I was compelled to move again. I booked…taking my punk rock unionist’s mindset and “Bazooka Josephine” with me. A new journey waited…


Nhatt Attack said...

I well written and moving experience.

I'm, as you know, mostly a London courier. Originally our zine was on paper and was called Moving Target, and was the voice for the LBMA. Now the LBMA is gone and the zine has gone online, it's still good but it seems that every generation of couriers needs to re-build on the ashes of the burt out veterans.

Instead of a bike messenger association, we re-started small. We now have our own emergency fund, a small way that we can take care of each other and do more than just race and drink. I would love to see a co-operativly ran courier company start, i'm not sure if i'm in the possition to do it, and if not me, then who in London could convince enough companies to risk it on us?

Recently the largest courier company in London lowered it's rates. Nearly all companies have started to require uniforms here, and the few companies that have a guarentee make sure that their riders never earn above it.

I think it's time for London to start thinking about pulling itself back together again to form another LBMA, but it's a really tough thing to try and organize. Thanks for the inspiring article.

Nhatt Attack

lauriebeth said...

Hi Jack,
How are you? Good to see that your alive and well. I enjoyed reading your blog.
Are you stil in DC? Do you like it? Feel free to e-mail me at