Just after she turned 18, Syrah May Lark rode a unicycle across the United States. Now a month shy of 24, the precocious bike mechanic has been a co-lead for the successful Blue Krewe United unionization campaign in a state where union density is at its lowest in the last decade. As a trans woman, helping to organize her coworkers in Louisiana — a state which ranks among the bottom seven states for union members in the workforce, and where trans lives have been under attack by the state legislature — it was also an adventure requiring balance, boldness and bravery. “The way we win our rights at work is the same way we win our collective liberation,” Lark told Truthout. “By daring to struggle, daring to win, and organizing.”
Working During a Heat Emergency
It’s been an unnerving few months for the mechanics and technicians working in Blue Krewe’s warehouse, about the size of a Walgreens, located in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood. The summer was so hot the governor declared an official heat emergency. Their only respite is two paid 15-minute breaks in a small break room, which, along with the bathroom, is cooled. Workers are also welcome to spend their unpaid lunch hour cooling off, but the remainder of their eight-hour shifts are either spent in the field or in the vast unairconditioned workspace housing the mechanics stations, bikes and batteries. If the heat index rises to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, they are allowed to clock out, no questions asked, but they will not be compensated for the time. It’s a policy that is not often used because “well, we need to get paid,” Lark said.
Blue Krewe is the community-based nonprofit that manages the fleet of around 800 Blue Bikes available for rent at hubs throughout the city, a number that has been promised to swell to 2,500 by 2025. These e-bikes are accessed exclusively with an app on a smartphone.
Blue Krewe CEO Geoff Coats joined the company in October 2020 after the original owner who’d launched the company in December 2017 with 115 bikes pulled out in March 2020. (Blue Cross is credited for bringing Blue Bikes back to New Orleans in part as a safe mode of transport that allows for social distancing during the pandemic.) Under Coats’s leadership, Blue Bikes came back online for riders in March 2021.
In 2021, Biz New Orleans reported that, “Between insurance, fuel, and maintenance and repairs, the typical motorist in Louisiana can expect to spend about $4,123 per year on vehicle ownership — the highest annual cost estimate among states. Nationwide, the average cost is about $2,807.” With limited public transportation options in New Orleans, Blue Bikes is meant to fill a crucial transportation gap for poor and working-class people and lessen auto-dependency in a move toward climate mitigation.
There are 20 Blue Krewe workers who retrieve and repair the bikes and replace any faulty parts rattled loose by New Orleans’ famously rutted roads and legendary potholes. They know firsthand the uneven terrain, and before they send the bikes back out to the street, they perform safety checks so riders can get where they’re going, often to work, without the hassle of breakdowns.
The base wage for most of Blue Krewe’s mechanics and technicians has been stuck between $15-$17 an hour for the last couple of years, something they learned once they started talking to each other this spring, which is when the movement to unionize the nonprofit began in earnest.
There have been other friction points that spurred organizing efforts.
The bikes have batteries that motor the pedals to assist riders to go faster or further with a little help from the battery’s juice. As the temperatures climbed and remained excessively high, the risk of heat-sensitive bike batteries exploding became ever greater. E-bike battery explosions were the subject of a recent fire department investigation in New York City that found of the 114 explosions there, 80 of the fires happened inside structures. What if the whole building blew? Lark wondered on more than one occasion. How far could the fire spread?
Blue Bike’s human resources department, which is outsourced to a third-party contractor, was good for venting but not much more, according to Lark. “At the end of the day, the CEO is writing her checks as much as ours,” Lark said.
Eventually, she says, it hit her: “If anyone’s gonna make any changes, we have to do it.”
Blue Krewe Workers Begin Organizing
Up until this spring, many of the workers didn’t know each other very well, or even at all. There are day shifts and night shifts, and even within shifts, some roles require independent field work. Nonetheless, they turned to each other for relief. The grumblings of dissatisfaction on a Signal group chat evolved into weekly Monday night meetings at an Irish pub.
Another co-lead organizer, Krisy Schaffer, is also a bike mechanic and trans agender; they’re a former professional soccer player and avid mountain biker who’s lived and biked all over the world. Schaffer told Truthout the plan was to invite everyone to hang out to relax and ease into talking about how things at work could be better. But it proved challenging.
“A toxic work environment, where no one has job security, has a trickle-down effect. Nobody trusts what anybody’s saying because the culture … was to not trust anyone,” Schaffer said. One recent example they point to is a June 13, 2023, email from management provided to Truthout announcing the termination of an employee, along with a request that the matter not be discussed because of privacy concerns. “It was really difficult to overcome,” Schaffer said.
At a certain point, they contacted the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA) for advice. Formed in 2012, SWA is a network of local unions, worker organizations and organizing committees building worker power throughout the South.
“They were really helpful in igniting that fire that we are worthy of all the things we’re now asking for, that we do deserve them and we can make it happen,” Schaffer said. “They told us our power is in our numbers.”
That was a powerful incentive for Blue Krewe employees to unite. One thing they hadn’t fully realized before the get-togethers was that of the 20 employees at Blue Krewe, five, including Lark and Schaffer, were transgender or trans agender.
Schaffer explains it as an affinity within the service industry. “I’ve found in the past that I, and a lot of people I know, have been able to blossom into our trans identity, or whichever identity, because of support from people on the floor in the service industry. I don’t know what it is about the culture, but it’s just the most diverse, welcoming experience.”
On June 27, the four-person organizing committee submitted to Blue Krewe’s board of directors a petition explaining their needs. They requested “Installation of industrial ceiling fans, such as ‘Big Ass Fans’ to enhance the comfort and safety of our warehouse working conditions.” New Orleans experienced “feels like” temperatures of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit that day. The organizing committee also asked for a base salary of $23 an hour. Schaffer said that Blue Bikes boasts a living wage for all employees, which is “technically true,” per the MIT wage calculator indicating that in Louisiana a living wage is $15.86 for an adult with no children. “But we’ve all talked about our expenses and what would be the bare minimum not to have to choose between groceries or paying electricity every month, and we came up with $23 an hour as doable and fair and a truer living wage.”
The following day, they cheered at the news delivered from CEO Coats that Blue Krewe would be ordering and installing a fan by September 20. Though he remained silent for the moment on the other demands, the workers had a tangible win to show for their organizing, one that spurred them on to dream bigger for themselves and those they serve. They’re aiming to be included in having a say in planning and logistics. Schaffer says the organizing committee would like to bolster the company’s stated commitment to equitable practices and access to a truly “community run” bikeshare. They want the company to work toward developing an alternative method of access so those without smartphones can use the service, and they have a concern around the proportion of the marketing budget dedicated to advertising to tourists rather than informing locals.
“We want hubs built in the lower socioeconomic areas of New Orleans, just like Blue Bikes said they would,” Schaffer said. “Instead of $4 a month for unlimited rides for Medicaid card-holders, we want [the price] to be zero. We want to eliminate punitive service fees that riders can incur if they return the bike outside of the zone. There are other ways to deal with those minor deviations from the rules.”
The next turning point came when Schaffer, after researching various unions, reached out to Workers United’s Richard Minter, a veteran labor organizer in the service sector. Schaffer says he gave them guidelines to follow, a playbook, and all the reassurance of being protected by law. Plus, they really appreciated his kindness.
“When I talked to Richard, everything he said, he was just so kind,” Schaffer recalled. “We’re all pretty kind, gentle, calm people, and that’s how we wanted to go about it. I think if someone came in guns blazing, ‘Let’s take them down,’ I think we would have searched around a little more.”
From Minter, they learned there were two routes to unionization: gaining recognition from the company directly, or filing cards from 70 percent of workers declaring their intent to form a union with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They did both, knowing if the company voluntarily recognized them, they could rescind their NLRB application. On August 2, they contacted Blue Krewe’s board of directors to demand recognition for Blue Krewe United being organized with Workers United in its Southwest Region. They had already collected declaration cards from 15 of the 20 employees for the NLRB. They wrote to the board:
Every one of us is in this work because we recognize the need for equitable public transportation. We’ve seen this power firsthand, from sparks of creativity when we started three years ago to almost 500,000 trips revolutionizing the future of New Orleans. We know the value of solidarity because we have experienced it through the organizing strength of our colleagues in our shared struggle to make the planet better for all who live here. …We will need a mutually supportive work environment in order to succeed, so we, so far 80% of the workforce, have chosen the path of unionization.
On August 11, the board recognized Blue Krewe United.
Minter told Truthout they are seizing the day, already working through the Recognition Document. In September, they’ll start the work of creating a contract, which he says will be “all encompassing” — fans, insurances, pay rates, job classifications, directives for what happens when someone leaves and there’s an opening and how they fill it, and a grievance procedure to protect it all.
“I’m expecting it will carry Blue Krewe into the future with a positive effect and mitigate a lot of the differences standing between them and management,” Minter said.
Now that the first e-bike workplace has been organized, Minter hopes the spirit will catch fire. “I know there’s a larger e-bike workforce out there. [Y]ou could have several thousand folks that find this industry to be their home. It’s just a matter of how to get to them.” He wants the Blue Krewe unionization experience to be a positive example to other kinds of urban workers who are marginalized in their workplaces. “I think it could set a standard, that we could end up with something that could be a catalyst for change in a lot of inner-city settings.”
Schaffer said the evening the workers were scheduled to celebrate was postponed because everyone needed to rest. “It feels like it happened in the blink of an eye, but also it was a lot of hard work by a bunch of courageous people who were tired of that shit,” they said. “I’m just so proud of everyone coming together.”