In mid-April, the workers of Blue Bikes Nola started organizing. Blue Bikes Nola is a rideshare program that lets people rent e-bikes around New Orleans. The company’s staff maintain the bikes while managing the physical demands and risks of the work, including extreme temperatures and biking in heavy traffic. They worked nonstop through the summer preparing, and then demanded recognition as a union from their management on August 2. A couple weeks later, on a hot night at a bar in Mid-City, a group of coworkers sat at a table outside, drinking, chatting, laughing. This time, it wasn’t a meeting; it was just a few people hanging out after work. After announcing the union, they all felt intense relief. Then they watched management stall on starting negotiations for their union contract. The days dragged on while they waited, still spending eight-hour shifts biking through thick, damp 90-degree air. But the mood that night meeting up after work was celebratory, carefree. Syrah May Lark, a bike mechanic at the company and one of the lead organizers, called me that week to go over how it all happened, and how things stood. A few days later, on August 17, the union was recognized by their board of directors. Following that victory, I got on the phone with her again to hear the rest of the story.
How did you all first decide that you wanted to organize, and what concerns were you addressing?
It started because we all liked the job at Blue Bikes, but agreed it could be a lot better. During the summer, it gets really hot in the warehouse that we work in, and we don’t have any sort of A/C or big industrial fans or anything like that. The pay could be better, and the working conditions could be a lot better. I got involved because I saw that many of my coworkers also had grievances with the working conditions.
Can you talk about what the work looks like day-to-day?
So what we do—we’re called field techs. The bikes are electric bikes, they’re all around the city, it’s a bike share. What the job entails for a regular field tech is riding a bicycle around town and swapping batteries on the electric bikes whenever they get low. You ride a bike, you carry a trailer of batteries around with you, and on your phone you have a map of the city that shows where all the low charge batteries are. You look for those batteries and replace them with fully charged ones. It’s almost like an Easter egg hunt. Once you replace all of the batteries that you’re carrying, you take all of the dead ones back to the warehouse and plug them into the wall so they can charge… We have to share the road with New Orleans drivers, we’re sharing the lanes, it’s very, very dangerous. People feel worried about being hit by a car, and then one of the white bikes goes up, and it’s us.
There are these white bicycles around the city to mark traffic accidents where a cyclist has been hit by a car. Sharing the road, and carrying a trailer of batteries behind us at the same time, we’re worried about getting hit by cars. My coworkers and I regularly experience heat stroke while biking out in the sun. We have to drink as much water as we possibly can. It’s really easy to not feel safe while you’re out there doing the work, especially if you’re riding somewhere like Claiborne, or North Rampart, or St. Claude, or even St. Charles. That’s only one of the risks we take on a daily basis. The physical demands and dangerous conditions of our work are very present and intense.
I’m a bicycle mechanic. So I maintain the fleet and make sure that bicycles are safe to ride before they’re deployed into the city. The bicycles that our field techs are riding are no different from the bicycles that any ordinary person rides. There’s a motor in there, but these bikes are not designed for hard labor; they’re cruisers, and they’re designed to be taken on rides. They’re not designed to carry a trailer filled with 80 pounds behind you at all times. Something that I have seen on the job is—I’ve seen the bicycles that we ride deteriorate, I’ve seen frames damaged, I’ve seen all kinds of damage to the bicycles that we ride carrying the trailers because they’re not meant to carry trailers. And the batteries themselves, they’re not supposed to be exposed to extremely hot conditions. You know, it’s so hot that the batteries can shock you if you touch them.
Can you tell me how and when you started organizing?
I believe our first union meeting was on April 15th. I think nine people showed up at our first union meeting, and we got to work putting together a list of what we think could be better about the workplace. So it started off as that, and we had been meeting for about two-and-a-half months before we put together a petition of demands that we’d like from the management.
What was on that?
We don’t have fans in the warehouse. There’s no sort of A/C in the warehouse that we work in. It’s a building full of hot air and batteries that are charging on the wall, and they’re just waiting to explode. The first bullet on our list is the installation of industrial ceiling fans, for comfort and safety in the warehouse. You get heat stroke riding bicycles in the city, but you can also get it in the warehouse we work in. We’ve had three former managers ask for the installation of industrial fans throughout the last year, and our CEO told each of them “no.”
The second thing we wanted was a base hourly wage increase to $23 an hour [currently it’s $16 an hour] considering the risks and skill sets that our job entails. We also asked for an implementation of daily hazard pay for work carried out under weather advisory conditions. That would be, for instance, what we’re experiencing right now. That would also cover hurricane conditions. Just recently, Mayor Cantrell declared a state of emergency because of how hot it is; that’s up on the City of NOLA website. We are regularly called into work during a heat advisory.
The last thing on our petition was comprehensive health and life insurance coverage at no cost to employees, because it is a physically demanding job with dangerous working conditions. Our company, Blue Bikes, is a nonprofit organization. So we receive our funding from sponsors, and our biggest sponsor is Blue Cross Blue Shield. And that being the case, all of us found it really strange that we don’t have health insurance coverage included with the benefits of working there. I believe the bike share in Pittsburgh shares the same sponsor. In Pittsburgh, they do receive comprehensive health and life insurance coverage. So we didn’t see why we’re not receiving those same benefits.
What were the next steps?
We wrote this petition. We collected our signatures. We had 15 signatures; three of those were former managers who had asked for fans for our warehouse. We created a united Gmail account so that it wouldn’t be sent from any of our individual accounts. Then we sent our petition of demands to our CEO Geoff Coats, our independent H.R. company, and to a member of our board of directors. That was on Tuesday, June 27th. Our CEO responded the next morning via email, and he ignored our second and third demands—for better wages and health insurance coverage; he only wrote about installing fans in our warehouse. Today, at this point, our warehouse has finally begun the process of installing industrial fans. We believe that was a result of our petition alone. The only reason he’s installing fans now is because we wrote that petition. The only reason that things are getting better for us now is because we got together and talked about it.
What’s happened since then?
We reached out to the director of Workers United. They help workers unionize their workplaces; their goal is to provide the resources they need. They’ve worked with Starbucks workers across the country, unionizing those teams. We had some options at that point. We could have formed an independent union on our own, and we reached out to the National Labor Relations Board on how we would go about doing that. The representative that we spoke to said it happens so infrequently that they don’t even remember the steps on how we would go about it. The other option was to join a part of a larger union, like Workers United. That’s what we did. We joined their Southwest region, and they provided us with an attorney. If we had formed an independent union on our own, there would be a lot of legal steps that we would have to independently research on our own. If we failed to comply, if we just didn’t know about one particular step in the process, then that could be something that got us shut down immediately. So we formed with Workers United because we would have an attorney on our side. It was just something that was more accessible to us.
What’s it been like joining up with them?
We spoke with the director there and he gave us advice on what to do next. The next step was that we printed out union authorization cards, and we were directed to collect a majority of signatures within the workforce. We went out aiming to collect 70% of the workforce in signatures and what we received was 75, and then 80[%]. That was 20 people.
On August 2nd, we demanded from Geoff Coats to be recognized as a union with Workers United and its Southwest Region. At that point, we were no longer listing grievances; that letter was strictly about being recognized as a union. From that point on, we were protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which states that the employer is not allowed to fire us for any sort of organizing. They can’t interrogate us about the union, they can’t spy on us or ask questions. They can’t coerce us, they can’t try to buy us off, they can’t hire more people to alter our bargaining unit numbers—those are the types of things that Section 7 states. Being protected by Section 7 means that from the time that they have knowledge that we are a union, we have to be treated differently. And that’s whether or not they recognize us. Either way, what follows is the negotiations process, whether that’s sooner or later.
What do you want that contract to look like?
At that point, the sky’s the limit for any sort of creativity. Whatever kind of workplace the workers want can be negotiated. And it’s gonna be built and centered around dignity and respect. This contract is going to be about making us able to come to work and feel good about the job that we have.
What was the emotional atmosphere of the union meetings? Can you talk about how it felt? Are y’all meeting at someone’s house?
We’re not meeting at a house, we meet somewhere public, like a bar. I don’t know if I can disclose which bar exactly. It’s a combination of exciting, and definitely some anxiety, because none of us have unionized a workforce before. This is a first for all of us. On the one hand, it’s a goal-oriented meeting that happens once a week, where we have an agenda, and we have actionable items. At the end of every meeting, people know what their assignment is. Things like, who’s going to talk to this worker about signing a union card? Who’s going to talk to that person? And what did that other person say today? How do they feel about the union’s stuff? We had to know who it was dangerous to talk to. We had to know who was not interested in signing a card. We were moving about this very cautiously.
And when you talk about needing to know who would be risky to talk to, is the risk that if someone exposes the union before you’ve officially announced it, then you don’t have the same protections and could be fired for that? Or what felt risky about that?
You know, that’s sort of a gray area. We have gone public now, so that’s not a concern that we have anymore. But in the past we were worried about: What if we talked to this person and he wasn’t about it, and told the boss that we were unionizing. He could come up with any other pretend reason to fire us, and he could say he had no idea we were unionizing. Our goal was to declare ourselves as a union only when we were ready.
Do you feel like you know each other a lot better?
Yes, absolutely. That seems like a pattern I’ve noticed with other unions as well. The Starbucks workers on Poydras Street have also unionized; I read an article about those workers and they had a very similar feeling… I never thought that I would get to know them on such a personal level, but the truth is that it’s the most comradery I’ve felt in a workplace, ever.
Were there any fun or funny moments that you can remember?
Yeah. The meetings that we had were very goal-oriented. But besides all of us wanting the workplace to be better, one other thing we had in common was that we were sick and tired of being disrespected at work. But at our meetings, it gave all of us a place to vent. Just for each other, we would put together memes about the way that we get treated at work, and it kept the morale high.
Anything else that you want to talk about?
It’s been the light at the end of the tunnel—the amount of solidarity that I have been able to share with my coworkers. I can easily say that organizing with my coworkers has been one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made in my life. I feel more confident moving forward, wherever I go, whatever job I end up having to work. I would encourage anyone and everyone to organize at their own workplace. New Orleans has a very high turnover rate, with it being mostly a service industry town. I don’t know if I mentioned this, but our union as Blue Krewe United is the first unionized e-bike ride share in the country. That’s been significant to us. We want to encourage other workers across the country to unionize at their own workplace.
The next time you’re in an intolerable situation, not feeling like your only choices are to put up with it, or leave the job. It’s a much less vulnerable position.
Exactly. No one can take that from me for the rest of my life.
When we last talked, you were waiting to see whether the board of directors would recognize the union voluntarily. When did that happen and what was that like?
It was the 17th [of August]. It was incredible. I still haven’t fully processed the feeling. It’s something I’m really proud of, and that I’m sure the rest of my coworkers feel very proud of. I’m really excited to witness what happens. It’s just very exciting.
Have there been any other developments that you think are worth talking about?
There’s steps leading up to framing our proposal. Our process starts with the organizing committee; we create a list of issues. We have a survey to hand out to all the employees just to make sure that we cover everything. From where we are now, no issue goes unheard. This week we’ll also get a meet-up with our regional director for Workers United; they’re organizing a Zoom meeting right now. The meeting itself is going to be important for collective bargaining. There’s meetings now about what that’s going to look like, to make sure everyone’s on the same page. All I can say now is that the negotiations process is getting started.
On those surveys, is it the same issues you mentioned before, or has anything new come up?
I’m sure the same material will be there. The fans are being installed, and the raises and health and life coverage are things that are probably about to be negotiated. It’s going to be more than just one survey; it’ll definitely be a series of polls and surveys. It’s a series of conversations in order to understand what everyone wants to include. Everyone who signed a card. But what sorts of things can we expect to be on it? Once everyone puts their heads together, it could be anything.
Photo Courtesy Olivia Sastry.
Top row (left to right): Sabo Bo, Ashel Marshall, Austin Lonsway, Patrick Driscoll, Terra Grace Weatherly, Wanda Noonan, Kia Thomas.
Bottom row: Syrah May Lark, Krisy Schaffer, Lizzy Simon.