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Bike-Share Employees Reject Walmart Model, Vote to Unionize

Photo courtesy drpavlov on Flickr

Wanted: skilled employees willing to work in a hazardous, low-wage environment without training, benefits or a predictable schedule.

This isn’t an ad for working at Walmart. Rather, it’s a list of the reasons that workers at a bike-share venture in Boston voted to unionize with the Transport Workers (TWU) in an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board conducted on Thursday. The election drew in 95% of eligible voters and led to an overwhelming three-fourths vote for union representation in a clear repudiation of practices that are becoming more common in technology-driven ventures.

“The workers want a better company,” said TWU Vice President John Samuelsen in a statement. “A union contract will provide them a platform to have real input in giving Boston a world-class bike share operation, and it will enable us to address current problems, including operational difficulties and safety concerns. We’re thrilled that the vote was so decisive.”

Prior to the election, the workers complained of unpredictable and disruptive last-minute scheduling, being told they're not needed after being called in, needing too many repairs while having too few mechanics, unsafe rental vans when the company vehicles were out of service and $15 per hour wages that don’t match with the precision, organization and safety required in some of the company’s jobs.

“We all believe in Hubway and want it to succeed,” said Tom Langelier, a 29-year-old station technician with Hubway who voted to unionize. “But we’re expected to be on call as if there are formal rules, but there really are no rules. We’re all here in the first place because we bike and care about the future of our cities.”

Technology-driven sharing-economy ventures market themselves as attempts to make life more convenient, yet they still fall through old trapdoors of subtle and overt dehumanization in the search of profit. The workplace issues at Hubway and Citi Bike are not unusual. Take the examples of TaskRabbit employees earning just dollars a day after TaskRabbit revamped how it allocated their work, or the Facebook shuttle drivers whose split dawn and dusk shifts amount to a 15-hour workday. Yet the recent organizing victory at Hubway, along with similar victories in other bike-sharing ventures in Washington, D.C., and New York City, shows that a voice at work is just as important in the new technology-driven economy as it was in years past.

“These are supposed to be good green jobs you can live on and have pride in, not transient green jobs,” said Natalie Matthews, a 24-year-old office administrator, in a telephone interview. “The prime reason we want to organize is so we don’t lose more good people.”

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