This Group Wants to Organize New York City’s Cycling Workers
BIKE MECHANICS, MESSENGERS, AND OTHERS ARE TRYING TO GET THE BIKE WORKERS ADVOCACY PROJECT OFF THE GROUND. THEIR GOAL? UNIONIZATION—OR SOMETHING LIKE IT
A crowd of about 30 cyclists gathered in Manhattan’s Union Square on a recent Saturday night in March. Some milled around and talked, while others pedaled in circles in the chilly, 38-degree weather. One man held a sign that read “DO NOT FEAR! ORGANIZE!”
These cyclists—couriers, mostly, but also bike mechanics and delivery riders—all worked in some field of the bike industry. They could have spent their weekend riding for tips, but instead they had gathered in the cold at the behest of the Bike Workers Advocacy Project (BWAP), a new group seeking to organize cycling workers and, eventually, lead to some kind of unionization or union-style representation.
Jamie, a delivery cyclist who works with apps like Postmates and Caviar, showed up because he felt his earnings didn’t reflect his workload. “I pull 20-hour shifts two or three times per week,” he told Bicycling, noting that he’s lucky to come away with $100 for his efforts. In addition to rallying for more money, he said, he wants to find solidarity with his fellow cyclists, since the life of a delivery worker can be lonely.
BWAP came out of conversations that a pair of bike mechanics, Tyler Crawford and Lydia Moore, would have at Bicycle Habitat, the Brooklyn bike shop where they both worked. (Though Crawford has since enrolled at Fordham Law School, Moore still works at the shop.) They would discuss their own working conditions and those of other mechanics, musing on how to organize to improve them.
“I went into shops when I was first interviewing in places around here, and the whole back space was like a closet,” Moore said. “And someone would be using aerosol degreaser and there’s no windows or vents.” Though that wasn’t the case at Bicycle Habitat, the pair wanted to help other mechanics avoid similarly dangerous work environments.
Previous efforts to organize cycling workers—messengers at the rally talked about a failed attempt by the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1980s and ’90s—have kept the focus exclusively on bike messengers. Another group, the New York Messengers Alliance, is currently attempting to unionize couriers. But an industry-wide umbrella group would be an unprecedented effort to organize every worker in the city whose job relies on two wheels.
BWAP kicked off in earnest when another mechanic, who goes by Ed, created a Facebook group for bike shop employees to vent about their frustrations on the job. Moore and Crawford knew Ed and took over admin duties, inviting even more mechanics to join the discussion and extending the invite to messengers as well. That Facebook group eventually became the digital space where BWAP’s members would talk organizing.
Social media proved useful again when Crawford was introduced to Alim Mohammed, a bike messenger who had put out a Facebook call for other couriers to meet up and discuss a potential union. Crawford attended a February meeting near Columbus Circle, where he told Mohammed and another messenger, Jason Woody, about BWAP.
Though they’re organizing together, the mechanics and messengers have slightly different goals. Moore and Crawford envision a kind of overarching support group for various kinds of bike employees—more of a worker’s center than a union, although it would have space to support unionization efforts as well. The difference, Crawford said, is that a worker’s center can become more of a community space, one “that’s built by mechanics and messengers” to serve not only their own needs, but also those of cyclists traditionally overlooked by the industry (such as people from New York’s low-income or non-white neighborhoods).
“In the shop life, it’s difficult to gain the skills and knowledge in a streamlined way that helps you build a career in the bike industry,” Moore said. “A worker’s center can bridge that education gap.” Too many people, she said, view cycling as a hobby and not a marketable skill someone can learn if they get the chance to practice it with informed teachers. Even established professionals can be a barrier, she said, as they “look at a lot of the knowledge as this sacred thing you have to work toward before you’re zen enough to do it.”
On the messenger side, there’s hope that organizing could make the industry more lucrative. (Mohammed said he needs to do at least 25 runs per day to make only $100.) Woody and Mohammed also want to bring some organization to a chaotic industry that’s been de-professionalized with the growth of app-based delivery services like Postmates, Caviar, and Uber Eats. Anyone with a bike and a smartphone can make money doing deliveries for these start-ups—that’s part of the appeal, as is the ability to make your own hours. But app-based delivery workers are classified as independent contractors, not regular employees, and don’t enjoy any benefits or workplace protections.
“I’d like to see the city make regulations for bike workers similar to the way TLC [New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission] was created,” Woody said. “Something that creates industry standards that result in higher wages and more protections.” Mohammed also said app-based workers are misclassified, since they’re beholden to the rates apps set for each delivery.
BWAP’s organizers said they wouldn’t treat app-based delivery workers any differently from traditional couriers. “We all take the risk no matter who we deliver for,” Mohammed said. But the bulk of the organizing will likely take place offline. Fittingly enough, Union Square (which hosted the country’s first Labor Day parade) has long served as a gathering place for cycling workers of all kinds. The way Mohammed looks at it, word of mouth and a buy-in from other workers is the way forward.
“This is a bike workforce movement, so we really need bike workers to step up for their rights and advocate just like I am, so we can keep growing in numbers,” he said, stressing solidarity in the face of an often tenuous and competitive field. (“Everyone feels like the next man is their enemy, because we’re working for commission,” he said.)
It’s a challenge other messengers pointed out as well. “There’s resistance among people,” Austin Horse, who described himself as a “semi-retired” bike messenger, said at the meetup in Union Square. “The mentality of a messenger is at odds with the idea of solidarity, because the way some companies are set up, you’re competing against other messengers to see who the top dog is, and to get better at work you have to have a better relationship with your dispatcher and management than with your fellow employees.”
While the March rally didn’t draw an enormous crowd, Crawford said the group raised $700 that night, and he was pleased to see a representative from the Messengers Alliance show up. Crawford also said he’s heard from more people since the rally, which can add to BWAP’s numbers. (Currently its closed Facebook discussion grouphas fewer than 250 members.) Mohammed said the nascent organization has more solidarity rallies planned, possibly every month, in an effort to build support.
“What we want to accomplish is the betterment of all bike workers,” he said. “I know it’s something we can accomplish if we try.”