SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco's bike messengers -- two-wheeled urban rebels with no desks, no suits and little regard for the rules of the road -- nevertheless want a little security, and they're trying to form a union.
No other U.S. city has a bike messenger union.The union organizers have some heavy persuading to do to recruit workers who thrive on the freedom of the streets and the flexible hours.
"It's an industry that attracts an independent-minded person," acknowledged Joel Metz, 28, a director of the fledgling San Francisco Bike Messengers Association, which has 80 dues-paying members so far.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union is backing the association in its drive to sign up members among the city's 350 bike messengers and gain recognition as their bargaining agent. San Francisco has about 80 delivery services.
Organizers want better wages, vacation, sick time, health insurance and compensation for bike maintenance and food -- which, they point out, is bikers' fuel.
"Things had to get so bad for us to completely bond and act," said America Meredith, a messenger who is leading the union drive. "People perceive it as a kid's game, but it really is a legitimate way to earn a living."
Bike messengers typically net less than $300 a week and are paid on commission. The more they pedal, the more they earn, though few make more than $450 a week. Bad weather, a broken pedal or a bout with the flu can mean the rent goes unpaid.
In 1993, messengers in Portland, Ore., tried to organize, but the National Labor Relations Board said any union would have to include workers industrywide, such as drivers, dispatchers and office staff.
In October, the ILWU agred to back the union drive but insisted that the messengers persuade non-bikers in the industry -- including 2,000 messengers who drive cars and vans -- to join as well.
"They have to build power to get a modicum of justice," said Peter Olney, ILWU director of organizing.
The bikers association already pays dues and has an office at the ILWU. Organizers said they've given out 500 membership cards so far.
Greg Austin, a 40-year-old former bike messenger who started his own messenger service, prides himself on keeping his riders happy. He pays half the cost of riders' health insurance, and provides a decent wage. He said the industry is too transient to unionize successfully.
"Turnover can be 100 (percent) to 300 (percent) or even 400 percent per year. That seems to be something that's fundamentally against trying to build a work base," he said. "There's a bit of naivete on the part of the messenger force on what having a union would truly mean."
One of his workers is Ariel Bacon, 25, who has been a bike messenger for two years -- pedaling up San Francisco's killer hills as steep as mountainsides, swerving to avoid pedestrians, weaving through traffic.
She and her fellow bikers all have war stories and battle scars. ("I've been hit a couple of times, but nothing serious," she said.) They call cars "deathmonsters" and live for the adrenalin rush.
Bacon is one of the lucky ones. She makes about $130 a day working a normal five-day week for Austin's company, with its high-end legal and business clients, and spends $60 a month for her health insurance.
She said she can see the point of a union, but she's not sure how many other bikers will.
"People who are bike messengers want to be on the fringe and don't necessarily want to be a part of the community," she said. "Once you're part of a union, there's a bunch of rules you have to follow, and they don't want that either."