The Accidental Organizer — OR, how I lost one job, helped unionize another, and managed to survive

Today, September 17, is the main event for workers (including myself) at Divvy: we’ll be negotiating our wages, along with a few other things. I hope that Divvy Bikes and its parent company will agree that its workers deserve fair wages.

I don’t think I’ve told this story online, have I? Last summer, I had worked part-time at Divvy, Chicago’s public bikesharing program, for just over a year. I had been promised–though they’ll always deny this, so maybe I should say it was strongly hinted to me–that workers would receive raises during their first annual review. For me, that would be July of 2014.

In June, I lost my other job. The cafe I’d been working at lost its lease, and Divvy became my only steady source of income. I was making $12 an hour, and not allowed to work more than thirty hours a week. When I asked about those raises, my manager shook his head, and I was told that there’d be no raises, because bikeshare workers in New York City had unionized.

Divvy is owned by Motivate, which took over from Alta Bike Share, which was owned by… you know, it doesn’t matter. What you need to know is that Motivate also owns and operates the bike shares of New York, Boston, Washington DC, Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, and a few other cities. New York unionized first, with the Transport Workers Union local 100, which represents all MTA workers. They’re a powerful union, and it was smart of Citibike workers to join them.

When I was told the Citibike workers had unionized, I started talking to coworkers I’d worked alongside with for the past year, folks who I knew well enough to nod to but hadn’t spoken to much, to find out where they stood on it. One of them was Caleb Usry, a driver who’d worked there as long as I had. I can’t be positive, but I’m pretty sure it’s him in this picture. divvy

Caleb contacted the TWU Local 100 directly, and two representatives flew out in October to meet with any Divvy workers that were interested. Turns out that bikeshare workers in Washington DC and Boston were doing the same thing. I signed my card and passed it on.

(Note to folks who don’t know how this works: when forming a union, workers sign a petition in the form of cards, which authorizes said union to represent them during collective negotiations. When a certain percentage of your work force signs cards, you can hand them into the National Labor Relations Board, which will conduct an impartial vote a few weeks later.)

After turning in my card, I got cards to a few other people, and then started collecting them, and then ended up sitting down with Caleb during a conference call to the TWU, and then writing and sending out press releases. And then, to my surprise, people started treating me like I actually knew what I was doing. I fell into organizing by accident, because I had the time and I could see what needed to be done. And I felt sort of fearless: I’d already lost one job that summer and survived, and I was young and able-bodied and had support from my family and friends. If I got fired, I’d live.

Not to say I wasn’t scared. I spent three solid months sleeping badly, having nightmares, not eating, and learning way too many dirty secrets about my place of employment. Four days a week, I had to deal with dirty looks and awkward silences and the odd bout of screaming from someone I worked with, who now saw me as an enemy. Divvy had hired lawyers from the Jackson Lewis firm to run an anti-union campaign, and we had to sit through hours of mandatory town-hall meetings while various managers (both Divvy’s and higher-ups at Motivate, including the CEO) explained how bad a union would be for us.

It seems silly to complain. I’ve heard horror stories about other organizers, about assaults and bullying and abuse. Hell, the history of the labor movement is full of martyrs, workers shot dead in streets, children burned to death in tents, acres and acres of graves and gallows. I got some verbal threats and passive-aggressive shunning. It still sucked out my will to live for a while.

If what I was doing hadn’t mattered, I might have just quit and moved on with my life. But I couldn’t be totally blasé about what I was doing, couldn’t pretend that it didn’t matter. I’d fallen into a cycle of working shitty jobs that would keep me fed and housed until I could find a better job–but the better jobs turned out to be crappy and exploitative too. That’s what’s happening in the job market now, for working-class and lower-middle class people in America: we’re expected to give everything to companies that treat us like ass, and we should be grateful to receive any kind of income at all.

Like hell. What was it Angela Davis said? “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I can’t accept.” At some point, the cycle has to break. Jobs should sustain people. If a company can’t make a profit without exploiting its workers, it shouldn’t be in business. It’s simple as that.

Our union election was December 10, 2014. I’d lost count of a lot of things by then: hours of sleep I’d lost, email I’d sent, cigarettes that Caleb and I smoked while incessantly plotting, the hundreds of thousands of dollars Divvy spent on lawyers to bust our unionization efforts. I was in a waiting room of an urgent care clinic for most of the election day, madly texting a couple dozen people while watching HGTV. A cute lesbian couple wanted to buy a house in Puerto Vallarta. An uncute heterosexual couple wanted to either buy a new house or completely remodel their current one, because the pink kitchen was cramped and awful. The pinched nerve in my elbow, where I’d slammed it against my work bench the day before, ached fiercely, and two of my fingertips were still numb. I tapped them on my phone.

I got a text from one of my coworkers, which said simply, We won.

I didn’t believe it until I called Caleb, and when he picked up, he was crying. We’d won by a single vote.

We got so drunk that night.

Not very long after we won the union election vote, a friend called me and told me that she wanted to organize a union at her job. The first thing I told her was, “If I can do it, you can do it.” Then I told her that it would be hard and extremely stressful and would probably take over her life for a while in an unhealthy way. I WAS RIGHT ON ALL COUNTS. My friend successfully organized a group of teaching assistants at a school for children with autism. I helped organize a union for bikeshare workers in Chicago. It’s not a miracle: it’s the product of a lot of work and worry and organization. It’s the end result of an equation that had been built over the course of years. I’m standing on the shoulders–and the bones–of a lot of people who went before me. And I’m standing with dozens of other people, who stuck their necks out at their job, who helped facilitate all the conversations that needed to happen.

It has been a long, weird trip to get here, the day of what will hopefully be our final negotiation. I don’t know what will happen: if management is going to try to shortchange us, if there’s going to be a fight, rallies, a strike, a picket line, a showdown. I really hope not. We’re not asking a lot; just the sort of fair wages that will put us level with other cities under Motivate’s management.

If you’d like to help, please like our Facebook page or send a message of support to Divvy today, via social media, email, or phone.

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Phone: 1-855-55-DIVVY

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