A Union-Forged Bike Shop
The founding formula of a worker cooperative offers a vision for the future
By Dimitri Fautsch
When David Kellman and Briton Malcomson worked at Citi Bike in 2013, they helped launch a unionization drive to address low wages and poor working conditions.
That’s the first step in creating dignity at these jobs, is making sure that people have a voice in the workplace.
The launch of Citi Bike was plagued with problems, they said, from loose pedal cranks to software bugs in the station docks. And at the Farley Building in Manhattan, in what is now the Moynihan Train Hall, a loading dock with 12 mechanics had no air conditioning, the veterans recalled recently.
Then a Google doc listing the hourly wage of a bike mechanic, $14.75, compared to the annual salary of a manager for the ride-sharing service, $85,000, circulated through every department.
“The data on pay was really important,” Kellman said. “To see that discrepancy between people who are actually doing the work compared to people in the office, that annoyed me.”
That’s when they decided to try to get workers to join the Transport Workers Union Local 100 (TWU), the union that represents tens of thousands of New York City transit employees.
“We had 80% support, almost right away,” Malcomson said.
Then Kellman and Malcomson went to work on a bike-sharing network at Stony Brook University on Long Island. The school, located in Suffolk County, was too far from the city and too small for Citi Bike to operate the contract.
They formed a partnership in 2016, which later led to the founding of a cooperative called Bed-Stuy Bikes in Brooklyn. In consultation with the Industrial Cooperative Association Group, the oldest national consultancy specializing in worker ownership, the TWU drafted bylaws for the cooperative.
“We think [worker ownership] can enhance the market position of these companies,” said David Hammer, the executive director of the ICA Group.
A worker cooperative offers a democratic vision for business. One aspect of a worker co-op is that to sell the business, there would need to be a majority agreement among the shareholders—in this case, the employees.
“That’s the first step in creating dignity at these jobs, is making sure that people have a voice in the workplace,” Hammer said.
Bed-Stuy Bike Shop opened in September 2019. The TWU gave the shop a loan and it was able to secure space at Restoration Plaza, a nonprofit community development group.
“We connected with Restoration through a contract to repair the Citi Bikes that fizzled out,” Kellman said. “But Restoration has been helpful. They let us defer some of our rent during the pandemic.”
The model, which allows workers to be part owners of the business, has attracted customers and kept the nascent bike store afloat.
The shop offers mostly repairs and sells the occasional custom-built bike.
“In a weird way they are like a doctor for my bike,” said Francesca Piccioni, a nanny and bicycle commuter who lives in Bed-Stuy.
The shop eschews the pretension of racing-bike culture, Kellman and Malcomson said, offering a 10% discount for people who use their bikes for work.
“Our motto is we work on any type of bike,” Malcomson said. “We don’t condescend — whatever you’re using, we meet you where you’re at, to get it working.”
Year-over-year increase in daily riders across East River bridges in the summer of 2020
The bike shop provided a lifeline to bicycle commuters during the pandemic when fears of using mass transit led to a surge in cycling and more people came to rely on their bikes for work.
The city’s four East River bridges saw just above 23,000 daily riders between July and October of 2020, an increase of 4,745 riders compared to 2019, according to data from the city’s automated bicycle counters posted on NYC Open Data.
But the alternative model has drawbacks. Their structure made it difficult to receive pandemic-related aid from the government.
They also don’t act as a middleman for bike manufacturers, so they may have missed purchases from new riders.
In any case, the cooperative model gave them a chance to survive the pandemic.
“There is a slowly growing group of people that appreciate our structure and come here from further away just because we’re a co-op,” Malcomson said.