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Meet a Worker Co-op

Bed-Stuy Bikes Still Wants to Build the Bike-Repair Trade School of the Future

The worker cooperative is having a tough winter, but sees brighter days ahead for both the cooperative and bike mechanics across the city.

The staff of Bed-Stuy Bikes

From left: Lydia Moore, Briton Malcolmson, and John Paredes at Bed-Stuy Bikes (Hell Gate)

Being a bike mechanic is a tough job. It's manual labor, and your schedule is constantly changing—the boss can even send you home on slow days or lay you off during down months. The pay is also minimal, even for mechanics who have been on the job for years.

"No one has sought out a way to make bike mechanics a viable career. It's still considered like a summer job," said Lydia Moore, who has been a bike mechanic for over a decade. 

Moore is part of a group of five mechanics who co-own and operate Bed-Stuy Bikes on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, who are trying to create a new model of bike shop, one where the workers chart their own destiny—and charge less than $20 for a flat fix.

"It's freeing to know that ultimately any decisions we do make in the shop comes down to us trying to work cohesively as a group," John Paredes, another one of the co-owners, told Hell Gate. "I trust everyone I work with."

Briton Malcomson works on a customer's bike. (Hell Gate)

The shop opened in 2019, as a project run by the Worker's Transport Cooperative, the group that helped unionize the first Citi Bike mechanics, and that operates in partnership with the Transportation Workers Union.

A few months after opening, the pandemic hit, and New York City—like the rest of the country—experienced a bike boom. The shop was overflowing with bikes needing repair as mechanics put their belief into action that a worker-owned shop could both treat mechanics and customers well.

With the bike boom cooling, and with many more New Yorkers needing to fix the bikes they bought during the pandemic, the cooperative decided to branch out. Instead of just making their own jobs more equitable and fair, they wanted to train the next generation of bike mechanics, and cut down on barriers facing people from diverse backgrounds from becoming bike mechanics, like having to volunteer at a bike shop to get skills, or go to an expensive training school. (They also wanted to offer relatively inexpensive bike repairs).

"Bike shops can often have these toxic environments, especially during the busy season, so our goal was to usher in a different environment," Moore said, stressing the need to create an anti-racist, anti-oppressive space for bike mechanics, in a field that often skews white and male. "And I think we have lots of room for growth in those areas as an industry." 

The plan was to open the first New York State certified Bicycle Trade School, where mechanics could get paid for learning the skills they need to work on bikes, and mechanics could be treated like the tradespeople they are. 

"We would run what would essentially be a unionized apprenticeship program, the same as a building trade, an electrician or a plumber would go through where you get training and experience on the job while you're being paid," said Briton Malcomson, a Bed-Stuy Bikes co-owner who helped found the Worker's Transport Cooperative.

In May of 2022, the bike shop moved to its current location on Fulton Street, right off of Nostrand Avenue, with enough room for the trade school in the basement. That same year, the group received a grant from New York’s Workforce Development Institute to help build a curriculum for the trade school, and began preparing for their first class. 

But before they could open the school, Bed-Stuy Bikes ran into some setbacks. A series of break-ins had cost them money at their old space. And a few non-profits that were going to help the cooperative start the trade school backed out, citing direction from the city to divert resources towards arriving migrants. That didn't make sense to the Transport Workers mechanics.

"We weren't really maybe explaining enough to these organizations that what we do here is good for asylum seekers," said Moore. "Like the number of migrants that have literally walked into this bike shop asking for work, and just barely getting by doing delivery work, and they don't know how to do basic bike mechanic work. I'm showing them how to do some stuff themselves because you shouldn't come here and pay me for this."

They've also run into trouble securing grants, as most are designed for non-profit organizations, and not worker cooperatives. Even if they do qualify for these grants, many are for reimbursement, which means the organization has to spend the money first, before asking a foundation to cover costs. For a low-margin business, that type of outlay isn't possible. The workers scaled back salaries to make sure they could keep up with rent, but they're quickly seeing their dream of a trade school dim. Other opportunities they tried for, like Mayor Eric Adams's NYC Small Business Opportunity Fund, which gave out low-interest loans to businesses, were quickly oversubscribed, and their own application didn't make it far in the process. Another planned partnership with an e-bike startup also fizzled out. 

Moore in the shop's basement, where the trade school would be. (Hell Gate)

One of the cooperative's main income sources comes from the contract that Worker's Transport has to maintain the bikeshare system at SUNY Stony Brook, where they go a couple of times a week to fix the bikes and keep the system running.

In November, the cooperative launched a GoFundMe to help cover costs for the winter, in the hopes that if Bed-Stuy Bikes can stay operating for the next few months, things will fall in place for the trade school, and they can finally train a new generation of bike mechanics that will be paid commensurate to their skills, and not just be ruthlessly exploited by an industry built on low-paid workers. 

Their goal is $200,000, but co-owners told Hell Gate that they need $50,000 to make it through the spring. The shop is also hosting a comedy show next Tuesday to continue fundraising

Guiding me through the finished basement of the empty trade school, Moore reflected on what a missed opportunity it would be if it never got off the ground.

"We are coming into the season where things pick up, and we're really ready to get going," Moore said. "We just have to make it there." 

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