Eight bicycle messengers at a local delivery service walked off the job and onto the streets last week to protest the firing of a pro-union dispatcher who was allegedly dismissed for broadcasting a personal message on the company's radio.
Armed with a red banner depicting a clenched fist and two gear cogs, strikers and their supporters have maintained a picket line outside the headquarters of Transerv Systems Inc. on Southwest 4th Avenue, hoisting signs like "No SCAB BIKES" and "Transerv is unfair to workers."
"This is the second firing of a union supporter in the last month," said messenger Mike Chiapetta, 23, whose ponytail peeked out from beneath an Italian racing cap. "We're not going to take that."
Eight of Transerv's nine bike messengers have joined in the action, according to Chiapetta, wreaking havoc with the company's operations. But company officials downplayed the impact of the dispute. "We had eight employees who walked off the job," says Transerv vice president Gassen Gutierrez. "We've got 60 who are still here. We are trying to run business as usual."
Tensions between messengers and management have been building at Transerv for two years. After a couple of stillborn efforts to unionize the company, messengers teamed up with the Industrial Workers of the World, a.k.a. the Wobblies, and petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an election, which was held in August. Workers rejected the union by a vote of 22 to 15.
Bike messengers say the vote was unfair because electors included Transerv's process servers, who cruise around in air-conditioned cars and have little in common with wobbly, mud-spattered bikers.
Most bike messengers at Transerv earn between $1 and $2 per delivery--roughly one-third of what Transerv charges its clients, who include lawyers, architects and other impatient professionals. Chiapetta, who has been pedaling for Transerv for two years, says he earns about $300 a week.
The strikers say the dispute is not about money, however. They accuse Transerv of retaliating against pro-union workers by assigning them less lucrative schedules and targeting them for petty infractions, such as tardiness or riding on the sidewalk.
The final straw was the firing of a popular pro-union dispatcher, Doug Popp, allegedly for saying, "Don't look a break spatch in the mouth."
Company officials apparently regarded this as a personal communication, but messengers say "break spatch" is slang for a 10-minute break, and that Popp was merely telling a biker to take a rest.
Gutierrez says he cannot comment on personnel issues but denies that Popp's departure had anything to do with his pro-union views. "Nobody has been retaliated against for anything," says Gutierrez. "We're trying to run a business. They can't accept that they lost the election."
The dispute at Transerv is part of a larger movement to organize bicycle messengers, according to Lindsay Blue-Smith of the Portland United Messenger Association, which is working to enshrine such values as living wages, job security and accident coverage into a "Bike Messenger Bill of Rights."
At Transerv, the outcome will probably hinge on whether strikers can persuade replacement pedalers to honor the picket line. So far, they say, none of the temps hired by Transerv last week came back to work Monday.