Workers With LA Metro’s Bike Share Program Are Trying To Unionize. Here’s Why
Workers who keep Los Angeles Metro’s bike share program rolling say their work is undervalued and dangerous — and they’re trying to form a union to ensure better pay and protections.
The bikes have Metro branding, but the county’s transit agency pays a private company, Bicycle Transit Systems, to manage its fleet of roughly 1,400 bikes and 240 stations. The company employs roughly 60 people in L.A., including mechanics, dispatchers and technicians.
The workers have filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to join the Transport Workers Union, or TWU, which represents bike share workers in a few other U.S. cities.
Workers and a TWU representative told LAist the majority of BTS’ L.A. employees have signed cards indicating their support for unionizing. However, the company’s leadership has not voluntarily recognized the union, which means an official election will take place, facilitated by the NLRB. That vote is scheduled for Thursday of this week.
“There is no reason why this employer cannot recognize this union and bring their wages and benefits in line with other cities that have thriving bike share systems.” TWU Organizing Director Angelo Cucuzza said in a statement.
What Do Workers Want?
Three workers from Bicycle Transit Systems, who asked not to be named out of concern of retribution ahead of the unionization vote, said they want to see wages that reflect the importance of their labor and factor in the cost of living in L.A. They also want better roadside protections for workers in the field, and the ability to make a career in the bike share industry. Right now, they say that’s not possible.
“This type of job is branded as something that's a decent job, but then everyone kind of gets lumped in… the same low-bracket pay,” said one worker, who is a station technician. “Even if you've been here, like me, for four years and doing a more specialized job. So it really just starts to feel like continual slaps in the face."
Like many workers who still had to physically come in to work during the pandemic, a bike mechanic at the company said he and his colleagues started feeling a “disconnect” between their labor and the demands from management.
“We were stressed, we're dealing with multiple warehouse shutdowns, we're dealing with people getting sick, we're dealing with the isolation of driving home, the thought of driving to work, and there not being like a hospital bed, things that the at-home staff have no clue what they're dealing with,” he said. “And to have a manager start barking at us that we need to double our numbers… it really just highlighted the disconnect of what we were going through and what was important to them.”
The work is dirty, mentally draining and sometimes dangerous, he said. Bike stations are often adjacent to busy streets, and maintenance work has to be done feet away from speeding cars.
Workers also have to clean the bikes and stations, and “regularly deal with bodily fluids, biohazards, feces, needles and other dangers that get mixed in with the bikes,” he added. “We do take the same risk as comparable agencies, and the workforce at Los Angeles Metro and LADOT, which do very similar jobs as us, enjoy the privileges of union wages, union protections and a CBA to protect them.”
Another worker holds a position that wouldn’t be included in the union — after being conceded in discussions between workers and management — but continues to advocate for his colleagues’ right to unionize. He believes that if the future of mobility is greener and less reliant on cars, bike share workers’ contributions to that future should be held in higher value.
“This work is part of a growing trend here in transportation here in Los Angeles and other people who are doing the work, and responsible for its growth, should have a shot at creating careers out of this or having dignified work out of this,” he said.
How Has Management Responded?
The workers say the company has been fighting them “tooth and nail” on which workers would be included in the union. That’s led to higher-level staff being included in the voting, which the organizing workers see as a move to get more “no” votes in the election. They also say management has held “captive audience meetings” full of anti-union messaging.
Alison Cohen, CEO of Bicycle Transit Systems, told LAist she respects her employees’ right to form a union “100%” and said whatever the outcome of the vote, “we're going to keep doing our best to be a fair and just employer.”
Cohen previously co-founded another bike share company, now owned by Lyft, before leaving to start Bicycle Transit Systems in 2014. The company currently operates bike networks in L.A., Las Vegas and Philadelphia.
“I am really proud of the work that we do at Metro Bike Share,” she said. “I have a deep respect for all the employees who work here. I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of workplace the employees choose.”
Cohen led the recent meetings that workers characterized as captive audience meetings with anti-union messaging, and said she feels the characterization is “twisting that a bit.”
“If you call a staff meeting a captive audience, we have a ton of captive audience meetings,” she said. “We have lots of staff meetings. And I do feel that, as an employer, I also have a right to express my opinion… I did argue that we respect the right of our employees to organize and we hope that folks do research.”
Where Does Metro Stand?
In a statement, Metro officials clarified that the bike share program workers are not employed by the agency, adding:
“Metro has not been involved in any of the workers’ unionizing process or discussions. This vendor has committed to Metro that it will ensure a respectful process during their negotiations with their workers and will continue to provide a good working environment for their employees.
“Metro respects the rights of all Bicycle Transit Systems employees to express their concerns and use their voice to determine whether a unionized workplace will best represent their needs.”
Some of Metro’s leaders, however, have come out in support of the workers’ effort to unionize.
I stand with workers organizing @BikeMetro. Like every other form of public transit, bike share can & should provide its workers a rewarding career pathway. Attracting & retaining good workers means better service & reliability for customers. It's a win-win for workers & riders.— Mike Bonin-Official (@MikeBoninLA) June 25, 2021
I stand with the workers who are organizing @BikeMetro.— Janice Hahn (@SupJaniceHahn) June 30, 2021
These workers not only deserve decent wages and benefits for their hard work keeping our bike system up and running, they should have pathways to stable and rewarding careers. @Local320 @transportworker