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Why a D.C. bike shop is joining a radical socialist union

The staff of Capitol Hill Bikes organized in solidarity with the hard-fought campaign at Capital Bikeshare.

It's now a union shop. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

Call it copycat unionism: Sometimes one workplace’s organizing efforts spread to another.

That at least seems to be what's happening at Capitol Hill Bikes, whose nine-person staff voted in January to form the District Bicycle Workers' Union after watching the struggles of Capital Bikeshare workers to do the same.

“We saw what Capital Bikeshare was doing and wanted to show solidarity with them,” says Kevin Cashman, 27, a mechanic who has worked at the shop for two years. The ties are more than just symbolic: Fhar Miess, who was fired for organizing at the city’s bikesharing service, was hired at the 15-year-old bike shop last month.

The process was a lot easier at Capitol Hill Bikes, as employees have a good relationship with the shop’s owner, Denise D’Amour, who recognized the union voluntarily. “The bottom line is that I have a good staff, they’re smart, and they have the best interest of the store at heart, and I’m willing to do what they think is best,” she says.

Mostly, says sales rep Haider Hakky, it’s a formalization of how the employees already operate. Being in a union, he says, just makes collective communication easier. “One person might have one opinion, but it doesn’t necessarily represent everyone,” he says, on a quiet afternoon in the narrow, orange-painted, neatly-kept shop. "It’s like looking at the thumb of the Lincoln Memorial and thinking you’ve seen the whole thing.”

Already, unionizing has paid dividends. The staff, who had started at $9 an hour, have been bumped up to $12 an hour, and will get all the way to $15 an hour within a few months. Also, employees have been able to make the shop a little more political, putting a sign on the door declaring that Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) is not welcome inside. Harris is a lead opponent of the ballot initiative legalizing marijuana use in the District.

That fits with the political beliefs of the new union’s parent, the 3,000-member Industrial Workers of the World, a radical union with a colorful history that aims to overturn capitalism and the wage labor system. More recently, the IWW — sometimes known by the nickname for its members, the Wobblies — has been working on campaigns at StarbucksJimmy John’s and Whole Foods.

Also unlike the workers at Capitol Bikeshare, the workers at Capitol Hill Bikes won’t be signing a typical contract, since the IWW operates through a direct action model rather than traditional collective bargaining. And it often works with worker-owned cooperatives, which Cashman says the staff of the bike shop would eventually like to become, modeled on the IWW-affiliated Baltimore Bicycle Works.

“One of the problems we’re trying to solve is the transient nature of the bike shop business,” he says, noting that bike shop jobs rarely pay well or offer benefits. “One of the solutions is cooperative ownership.” (D’Amour says she’s open to the idea but isn’t ready to give up ownership yet.)

The wage hikes aren’t easy to support, D’Amour says, but the transition has been eased by the fact that some employees have voluntarily taken time off during the slow season. But bicycle ridership has been steadily increasing in the city, and she anticipates the spring will bring in enough revenue to pay the difference.

At the moment, though, it doesn’t appear that unionization -- already rare in the retail industry -- is spreading much further. The leaders of the union effort at Capitol Hill Bikes haven’t heard of other bike shops doing the same.

“Unfortunately it seems like the bike community in D.C. is moving away from unionization and worker control,” Cashman says, noting that many shops tend to serve the city’s upper-income and newcomer population. “That’s a movement that we’re trying to resist. Biking is sort of special, a democratic way to get around, and it’s important that it serves everybody.”