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D.C. Bikeshare workers look to unionize — and build a nationwide Bikeshare powerhouse

Fhar Miess, who supervises the bike checking team at Capital Bikeshare, is helping workers to join a union. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)
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Most large Bikeshare systems — those racks full of clunky rental bikes parked in docks that have been springing up all over American cities — are far from self-regulating. The number of bikes at the docks fluctuates, with full stations that can’t take more bikes and empty ones that can’t rent them out, which can paralyze movement between them.

That’s where Federico Morales comes in. He’s a “rebalancer” for Washington D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare system: Someone who ferries bikes around as needed to correct for the daily tidal motion of people riding downtown in the morning and returning to their residential neighborhoods at night. The job has its stresses, and also its dangers. By the time he gets off work, past midnight, it’s been dark for hours. The back of his van doesn’t have very good lighting, he says, which can make his stops feel precarious.

“When you’re in the back of the van, and it’s late at night, and you’ve just got flashers on, and you see someone coming 35 miles per hour, you’re like, ‘is this guy going to hit me?’” Morales said. He brought the problem up to management. “Finally they put in lights, but just little ones, and it just really makes me upset.” Promised reflective jackets didn’t show up either. Oh, and the van’s ramp gets slippery, especially during the rain.

That’s why, when a staff member handed Morales a union authorization card to sign a few weeks ago, he didn’t take too much convincing. On top of the safety concerns, Morales worries about his job security, at a time when the company that runs the D.C. system — and seven others across the country — is in the process of being acquired by a subsidiary of Related, a real estate giant in New York.

“It’s a small price to pay to keep my job,” Morales said. “They’re an investment firm. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And if you cost too much, you’re going to get cut.” (Contacted for comment, an Alta spokeswomen only said that the company “highly values the health and safety of our staff,” and offered wages and benefits that are “generous for the industry.”)

Thursday, a bike messenger delivered 57 of those cards to the National Labor Relations Board, representing 86 percent of Capital Bikeshare’s staff. If they’re certified, they could become the second city to join the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, after Citi Bike’s workforce in New York.

In some ways, Bikeshare workers are an unlikely union target. Their crunchy, Portland-based employer, Alta Bicycle Share, pays well above minimum wage, with benefits that Morales said are excellent. But it also represents a rare kind of growth opportunity for TWU: An entirely new job category that can be organized from the get-go. And for a nascent form of urban transportation trying to gain traction with citizens and local governments alike, it doesn’t hurt to have a powerful union on your side.

The guy behind the organizing drive at Capital Bikeshare is Fhar Miess, the soft-spoken supervisor of a team of mechanics who rove around the city, fixing broken bikes. But don’t call him a boss: He prefers the term “liaison,” since the bike-fixing department operates more like a collective, arriving at decisions through consensus.

Like many of the longtime staff at Capital Bikeshare, Miess is a former bike messenger and looks it, clad in tweed riding breeches and a jaunty wool cap. He’s been involved over the years with the Industrial Workers of the World, a global union with a storied history of socialist activism, but this is his first real shop floor campaign.

“We’re very invested in Capital Bikeshare,” said Miess, who started soon after the system launched in 2011. “We’re invested in its success, and we would like to share in the fruits of that success.”

Collective action got rolling informally about a year and a half ago, when one former employee realized that they hadn’t been paid the wages they were due under their contract with the District, which requires Alta to follow prevailing wage determinations that are set by the federal government. A petition and a protest helped propel an investigation by the Department of Labor, and workers believe they’ll ultimately get some compensation. But it occurred to some that a union would have helped them move with greater force through the process.

There were other small irritations. Sometimes mechanics don’t have all the tools they need to make necessary repairs. Sometimes people get fired without a clear reason or due process. The workers who are based at the company’s facilities in an industrial part of D.C. would like some natural light, which the current bunker-like warehouse doesn’t offer.  “Most of our grievances are kind of like, we’d like to be able to do our job better,” Miess said. “It’s not so much about wages. We’re doing pretty well there. It’s more having control over our workplace practices.”

Then, in August, New York-based TWU Local 100 got enough cards signed to hold an election at Citi Bike for 249 employees in the bargaining unit, including seasonal and part-time workers. A day before it was scheduled to occur, Alta opted to recognize the union voluntarily. Meanwhile, organizing was also underway in Boston, where employees also filed signed authorization cards to the NLRB on Thursday. TWU has said it’s talking to workers in a dozen other states, hoping to get as organized as possible before Alta’s sale to REQX Ventures is finalized.

Unions have traditionally been stronger in the transportation industry than the private sector generally, but density has been declining — unions represented 30 percent of transportation and utilities workers in 2003, and by 2012, the number was down to 20.6 percent in 2012.

TWU Local 100, however, has been growing in recent years, adding to its membership of 40,000 mostly Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers with organizing victories at some airlines and express bus carriers. Bikeshare is a big deal for the TWU, because it’s a national network; the union is aiming to form a national local that could bargain collectively for workers across the country. Right now, Alta only has 500 employees, and a handful of other companies add a few hundred more. But TWU plans for that number to rise, and is constructing a political and legislative agenda to put bikeshare on an equal footing with other transit systems.

“We’ve achieved the success that we have right now because we realized that the Bikeshare system in New York was a growing and vital part of the existing intermodal transit system,” said TWU Local 100 president John Samuelsen. “We intend to use our political muscle to advance the bikeshare industry. Bosses shouldn’t be nervous about bikeshare workers unionizing with the TWU. There’s an opportunity here for a very synergistic relationship.”

That’s also partly what attracted the Capital Bikeshare staff. Miess said that D.C.’s Amalgamated Transit Union also expressed interest in representing them, but they felt it made more sense to ally themselves with bikeshare workers nationally, rather than a purely regional union. (The ATU did not respond to a request for comment.)

Morales, who’s gotten sideways with his boss a few times, is looking forward to the comfort of knowing he won’t be fired for voicing concerns. He’s 43 and has a learning disability, so jobs that pay $16 an hour with a generous health-care plan are hard to come by, and he’d like to stick with Capital Bikeshare as long as he can do the work. A Bikeshare job isn’t yet the kind of job that offers lifelong security, like many union transit jobs do — but perhaps it could be, someday.

“Ten years from now, will I be able to do this?” he wondered. “And what are they going to do after 10 years? Are they going to be like, ‘later dude!’ I don’t know what’s going to happen.”