A fight between labor and management tests a bike share company’s progressive culture.
Many workers were surprised when they heard that Bicycle Transit Systems (BTS), the operator of Metro’s Bike Share program, was giving away PPE masks meant for them. “At the beginning of the pandemic they were going to give away all of our masks to a nursing facility when we ourselves are frontline workers and that’s our only protection,” said a BTS employee, who like other employees quoted in this story asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
For many workers, the masks were the final straw. They were out in the field, often interacting with the public, and understandably worried about safety during a period when LA was at the center of the pandemic.
“Last year really brought things to a head and highlighted the disconnect in the company. It made it so they just couldn’t hide it anymore,” said the employee. “They were hopping on the bandwagon with other companies, not thinking about our best interests.”
In an effort to fight for their interests, BTS employees formed a union. Earlier in June, they officially filed, but management has thus far declined to voluntarily recognize the union.
Bicycle Transit Systems workers and supporters of their unionization gathered Saturday, June 26, for a ride in solidarity. Two dozen riders, most on Metro Bikes, rang bells and blew whistles in an effort to draw attention to their unionization battle as they biked from Union Station to Donut Friend, where workers are also fighting for union recognition.
Employees see a divide at BTS between office employees and workers doing the physical labor of operating the bike share program. “There’s a big disconnect between the people who got to sit at home during the pandemic and those doing all the physical labor,” said an employee.
“We have an upstairs and a downstairs at our warehouse,” said another employee. “It’s like a startup that has its warehouse there. We can see the paradigm is so different in how we operate. A lot of times they’re speaking for all of us when they’re talking about what they want.”
Warehouse and field workers aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about the startup paradigm. “Startup culture is something we’re reticent about. The main innovation at a lot of startups is undercutting [wages],” the employee said.
Those wages are at the center of the union campaign. A key issue for the nearly dozen employees Knock LA spoke to is the lack of raises tied to experience or tenure with the company. Over time, workers would receive market adjustments to their pay, but those adjustments were also applied to new hires, meaning that new hires and veterans were making very similar wages.
In a message to coworkers, an employee with over five years of experience expressed his frustrations:
“I just realized how badly I’m being exploited. The starting pay for a Field Tech on the west side is $18/hr. I’m making $18.35/hr while also doing the training, as well as being exposed to exponentially worse conditions in Downtown LA vs Santa Monica. I do mechanical work in the field, I’m asked to do mechanical work in the warehouse, I’m exposed to human feces, needles, and other waste and only get .35 cents more? Wtf”
Bicycle Transit Systems employees want a pay structure that rewards experienced employees for the time they’ve given the company, and compensates them for the toll that the physical labor takes on their health. “There should be a clear, distinct wage that says ‘you’ve been here for years, you sacrificed your body, you took the risks, and we appreciate you,’” said an employee helping to organize the union drive.
They also worry that efforts to give the Bicycle Transit System workforce a voice in the company’s culture and vision have left out operations employees. Many BTS workers participate in voluntary committees focused on safety, environmentalism, or other issues important to the company and its employees. “The people out here doing the operations, they don’t participate in that,” said an employee. “They don’t have the opportunity to be visible like people with office-type jobs… We see people at work who really benefit from active participation in terms of getting promotions or favorable reviews.”
Knock reached out to Bicycle Transit Systems and Metro for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
BTS employees got a boost from City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who tweeted “I stand with workers organizing @BikeMetro. Like all public transit, bike share should provide its workers a rewarding career pathway. Attracting & retaining good workers means better service & reliability. It’s a win-win for workers & riders.”
Employees at Bicycle Transit Systems appreciate the company’s culture. Its leadership team is diverse, and employees at all levels have a deep connection to bicycle culture. But the company has resisted the unionization effort, calling captive audience meetings and providing anti-union information to employees.
As one veteran BTS employee put it:
Jason Frantz, a long-time bike share worker and organizer with the Transport Workers Union, said, “in plain terms, it’s kind of updating the tried and true boss handbook. ‘I’m the good parent who will take care of you, don’t worry about doing anything for yourself.’ They’re updating it to say ‘I am diverse, this is a diverse company.’”
Workers organizing at BTS broadly share the company’s values. But shared values do not always equate to shared interests. Workers want a path forward at the company, and a say in their working conditions and compensation.
“It’s cool that everyone here bikes. I’m proud to work for a woman-owned business. I know how rare that is. I want to change the way that transportation works in the city. We can’t survive as a car city,” said one worker-organizer. “A lot of us are very proud to be part of this work. We just want to be part of it in a way that’s dignified.”