At 2.5 million riders since its inception in 2011, the Hubway bike-share program is a leading urban feel-good story, putting Boston and neighboring Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline on the nation's cutting edge of cycling as a major mode of transportation. The program has achieved iconic status with its ubiquitous bike station racks, sleek-looking vans plying the city to supply the racks, and a wheeling cornucopia of international tourists and students, innovation geeks, and attache-cased downtown commuters.
Hubway has also become a laudable player in public health, providing $5 memberships to low-income patients dealing with obesity. Not shy about playing up the do-gooder angle, Hubway's website boasts about the tens of millions of calories burned by riders and the hundreds of tons of carbon emissions offset in transforming "the way people travel and experience the city."
But not feeling so good about their Hubway experience are its very own workers. A simmering cauldron of grumbles and grievances led to 30 out of 39 Hubway employees signing authorization cards last week to join the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City. The workers complain of unpredictable and disruptive last-minute scheduling, being told they're not needed after being called in, too many repairs for too few mechanics, unsafe rental vans when the company vans are out of service, and $15 wages that often seem low given the precision, organization, and safety required in some of the company's jobs.
Similar concerns led more than 200 workers at New York's Citi Bike to unionize and last month that bike-share program agreed to recognize the TWU as the bargaining agent. Citi Bike and Hubway are owned by the same parent company, Portland, Ore.-based Alta Bicycle Share.
"We all believe in Hubway and want it to succeed," said Tom Langelier, 29, a station technician, over a cup of coffee downtown. "But we're expected to be on call as if there are formal rules, but there really are no rules."
"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."
Hubway should listen to these workers before bitterness curbs not just their enthusiasm but slowly sours the public on the still-growing concept. Their laments are becoming familiar among new ventures which claim to push — often with hip cachet — the frontiers of technology, transportation, and convenience, yet still fall through old trapdoors of subtle and overt dehumanization in the search of profit.
In Silicon Valley, many Facebook shuttle bus drivers want to unionize with the Teamsters, complaining that their split dawn and dusk shifts do not allow them to go home, amounting to 15-hour days that deprive them of a family life. Teamsters official Rome Aloise said, "It is reminiscent of a time when noblemen were driven around in their coaches by their servants."
The Supreme Court last week heard the case of Amazon warehouse workers who say they are owed hundreds of millions of dollars in back pay for antitheft screenings at the end of the work day. Some screenings take as long as 25 minutes. Starbucks this summer was embarrassed into pledging to stabilize worker hours after a New York Times feature on a low-wage parent whose chaotic schedule had her sometimes closing a store at 11 at night, then reopening it at 4 a.m.
Hubway, particularly given all its benefits to health and the environment, should not drift anywhere near this realm of brutality. In a statement, Hubway general manager Emily Stapleton said, "The health and welfare of Hubway workers is one of our top priorities. We look forward to responding when we have time to fully review their request."
Mayor Marty Walsh, a former union organizer who campaigned on building upon former Mayor Thomas Menino's efforts to make Boston bike-friendly, said in a telephone interview that he did not yet know the details of worker complaints. But speaking generally, he said, "Hubway is very successful. It's good for people physically and good for the city. But the employees need to be treated with respect. I hope Hubway is working with the workers to make sure they treated with respect."
And that is all that Hubway workers are asking for. John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union New York local, said, "It shouldn't be that hard. This is not an extremely adversarial relationship like rail and subway negotiations. The workforce of bike share absolutely buys into the concept."
Langelier added, "We're all here in the first place because we bike and care about the future of our cities." That's a level of commitment that any company would want in its workers. Hubway should show its appreciation by sitting down with employees and bargaining with them as real people, not mere spokes in a hub.