Fhar Miess has never considered himself a boss.
Sure, he coordinated schedules and served as a liaison to management at Capital Bikeshare, where he supervised a dozen people who roam around the city making sure the red bikes are in working order. He was paid more for the job, but says he didn’t really have any more power than the rank and file, who had chosen him for the role.
“Ultimately, in my department, we operate in a completely horizontal fashion,” says Miess. “It had more to do with the amount of paperwork I had to shuffle than anything else. It didn’t impute any singular authority as far as I was concerned.”
But that small amount of leadership responsibility was still enough to get him fired: Under the law, “supervisors” aren’t allowed to help “employees” organize a union. And well, Miess was trying to organize workers at Capital Bikeshare. Last month, he coordinated the signing of 56 union cards, or 87 percent of the workforce, which triggers an election. Alta Bicycle Share, an operator of bikeshare systems in nine cities across the country that was recently purchased by an investment firm in New York, warned him to stop.
He did stop, pretty much, leaving the organizing to others. But then this past weekend, Miess attended a convention of bikeshare unionists in New York put on by Transit Workers Union Local 100, which is organizing them as quickly as it can as city after city sets up bikeshare systems. On Monday evening, Miess was called into the room in Capital Bikeshare’s warehouse facility on Buzzard Point where disciplinary meetings happen, told to turn over his keys, collect his belongings and leave the building immediately, never to return.
The next day, he changed his Facebook profile picture to one with him holding a sign: “I got fired for union organizing.” And the company pretty much agrees.
“We can confirm that we have terminated a Capital Bikeshare supervisor for illegal activity under the National Labor Relations Act,” said an Alta spokesperson, who insisted on anonymity to comment. “Our company supports the right of its employees to consider whether they want to join or not join the union, and we are facilitating that process consistent with the law.”
In response to the action, the TWU says it’s planning to file an unfair labor practice charge. That might have a chance to succeed if the group can prove that Miess was fired in order to intimidate other employees. That could take months, by which time Miess would need to have found another job anyway. That’s part of the thinking: by some estimates, organizers are terminated in 25 to 30 percent of union organizing campaigns, because even if the actions are later deemed illegal, they can be effective at squashing campaigns in the short-term. Any ultimate consequences — such as paying back wages — are too small to act as a deterrent for the companies.
The firing illustrates the difficulty of unionizing in more collectively managed environments, where those who emerge as leaders automatically become targets.
“Under Alta, job responsibilities were extremely murky. People were not ‘supervisors’ in the sense that you understand the word,” says Nick Bedell, a TWU organizer on the bikeshare campaign. “It’s more like, there’s a pile of bikes, a pile of people, and a pile of stuff, and we need to do something.”
It also shows how, under new ownership, even crunchy bikeshare firms based in Portland, Ore., can play hardball when their employees try to organize. While Alta had seemed open to the idea of more organized worker voice, that started to change after its sale last month to REQX Ventures, an arm of the real estate conglomerate Related. The company hired Jackson Lewis, a law firm that advertises its aggressive union avoidance practices.
“We went from playing rookie ball, and we’d kick their ass in New York City, to the major leagues,” says Bedell. “These are the most vicious, nasty bastards in the business. It doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong, it’s their goal to destroy worker organizing.”
Alta says it’s just trying to represent its own position — that a union isn’t needed — and protect the integrity of the process. And it’s been quite proactive in doing so: In the past few weeks, management at Capital Bikeshare has had both individual and group meetings with workers to make its case against the union, distributed a flyer on why joining the TWU wouldn’t provide more job security, and sent all-staff letters with the same message.
“We believe that we don’t need the union to come between us here,” read one missive from General Manager Eric Gilliland on Nov. 12. “So if anyone asks you to sign a union card, really think about what you are agreeing to before signing. If you send out a strong message, the Union may leave us alone so we can get back to improving our business, and strengthening the relationships we have with each other, without a third party in the way.”
In addition, the law firm also fought the workers’ first petition at the National Labor Relations Board, saying Miess shouldn’t have been included. In order to avoid a delay, Miess says they withdrew the petition, and submitted a whole new set of signatures — approximately the same number, minus himself — the next week. Now, both sides are expecting an election to be held sometime in mid-December.
Nationally, TWU’s campaign to unionize bikeshare systems is moving quickly: Boston’s workers will hold their election Dec. 4, and Chicago’s on Dec. 10. New York’s Citibike, having voted to unionize last month, is still hashing out a contract. It’s not uncommon for union elections to never ultimately yield contracts at all, but TWU — which also represents almost 40,000 workers in the city’s subway system — is confident it can muscle this one through.
“We’re the biggest dog in town in transportation,” Bedell says. “I’m just saying, we have significant political connections and sizable resources, and we’re going to go to the mat for every one of the 200-plus workers who work at Citibike.”
Though TWU doesn’t have the same kind of clout in Washington, the city government still ultimately hires its bikeshare operator, and politicians can play a role in deciding whether to contract with companies that have been friendly to union organizing. That seems to be a priority for D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the committee that oversees Capital Bikeshare.
“I do think that if workers are treated fairly and have good wages they’ve negotiated, that they’re likely to be better workers and more committed workers,” Cheh says. “I would hope that management would behave not just according to law, but in a cooperative spirit with people who want to organize.”
Bikeshare workers haven’t talked about feeling especially persecuted. Some have voiced concerns about a lack of safety measures while out moving bikes around, while others would like to have more tools available to keep them in working order. Overall, though, the desire for a union has more to do with concerns about the motives of the new management than substandard working conditions. Ursula Sandstrom, a 24-year-old bike checker who started at Capital Bikeshare in February, has stepped up to fill some of the leadership void Miess left.
“It’s our knowledge that has made this company a worthwhile investment,” she says. “We shouldn’t have to rely on corporate paternalism and benevolence to ensure that we’ll have good jobs, and continue to do the things we do so well.”
But the bike checking team, she says, has suffered without Miess — although the workers can organize each other, his institutional knowledge is hard to replace overnight.
If he isn’t reinstated, Miess says he might go back to the boutique bike frame building business he started upon coming to D.C. in 2009. He says he subscribes to many of the principles of anarchism, while disagreeing with many of the people in that social milieu. And being fired for union organizing would be something of a credit to a life spent organizing worker collectives — bookstores, a cafe, a short-lived weekly newspaper, a bike messenger service — in Seattle and Santa Cruz.
Still, Miess hopes to return to Bikeshare.
“I would love to have my job back,” he says. “I would love to be reinstated as a regular bike checker without any title, and have it be acknowledged that ultimately that’s what my position always was.”