Unions are Great. Bikes are Great. Cycle Toronto.

It’s been a bit since I communed through the ole’ blog, but as a director of the Toronto Cyclists Union I’ve now become very engaged in a healthy discussion with our membership about changing the name of the organization to Cycle Toronto, a change that I feel strongly will be a key catalyst for other changes we’re looking forward to implementing.  The founder of our group, Dave Meslin, wrote a nice piece about why we should “Stick to the Union”  that I feel overlooked some key issues with our current name as well as many of the objections that have been tabled.  In short, my response to that post can be summarized in a couple of points:

  • The board and staff are finalizing a plan for the marketing transition, and it is way less difficult than is outlined in the post.  It won’t be an immediate transition which means that Toronto Cyclists Union may continue to live on for a year and beyond in old “swag”. Our main resources including the tent (in need of replacing anyways), posters, and digital media will be updated quickly with other pieces entering circulation as the old ones need replacing.
  • Toronto Cyclists Union.  bike union.  TCU.  BU.   All are names that we are currently referred to as.  Our brand guidelines dictate bike toronto never be capitalizes, and that our name never be abbreviated.  Our logo puts Toronto Cyclists Union all in lowercase.  Essentially, we currently have very little brand control.  We have 2100 members in a city of 2.5 million. We’re not as visible as we sometimes feel internally and we have never had control of our brand or logo…which makes this a perfect time for a change.
  • Nothing in the letter from the board mentioned “raving right-wingers”, but Dave clearly understands that the term union can be alienating and points that fact out in his post.  In a city that is divided along strict geographic and political lines, our current name often unintentionally frames our advocacy on partisan lines. Wouldn’t it be nice to have at least one issue whose politics are seen as non-partisan?  If a raving right winger is killed on their bike, would we not still have a ride?  Are they not also important allies in the fight for a safer, better cycling city?
  • The other organizations that Dave mentions receive so little grant funding are named Transportation Alternatives, Active Transportation Alliance, Citizens for Safe Cycling, Bike Portland, Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and the Seattle Bicycle Club.  They may not get much in grants, but the majority are heavily sponsored by businesses and trade organizations.  Those are groups we are currently having trouble connecting with…seems they can’t get past our name.

I’m going to leave the response to that.  I greatly respect Dave and his opinion, as I do that of each of our members, which is why this very important decision will be made by our membership with 2/3 ratification needed to change the name.  Whatever that decision, I hope that we are even more united and prepared for strong advocacy in the years to come.

Remember this map? It sort of looks like our membership...less than 10% of our members are outside the downtown core.

More importantly, here’s why you should vote to change the organization’s name to Cycle Toronto:  we need to be representative of all parts of Toronto, even the ones that have only been parts for a decade or so, in order to make systematic change happen at City Hall.  We need 10,000 members (minimum) to have the voting clout we need to be a strong voice.  Moreover, we can be a unifying force for all cyclists in this city – that’s always been our goal – and having a polarizing word right in our name (our first impression) doesn’t help.  The bike union has received a lot of feedback via our comment email box: twothirdsmajority@bikeunion.to, and among the emails have been requests for specifics around when our name has been an obstacle to our success and growth.  Here’s three:


  • A large insurance company wanted to provide cycling courses for its customers as a perk of doing business with them.  After calling one of our partner organizations for help, they were directed to the bike union.  The next day, they called back and said that they could not work with us because we were a union.
  • During one of our BikeWatch events, a cyclist pulled over to speak with one of our team and said, “I love bicycles, but I would never support you because I would never join a union”
  • No less than three local bike shops have chosen not to post our flyers and/or join our member discount program because they felt our name wouldn’t sit well with their customers.

I love unions.  I would like to see them return to their hayday of activism that laid the groundwork for so many of the privileges that we enjoy in Canada.  I even really like provocative names.  But I don’t understand when or why protecting the idea of the union became synonymous with separated bike lanes, safe routes to school, and increased penalties for giving cyclists the door prize?  Do we want an organization that encourages participation only from self-selected union-supporting cyclists? Or do we want a group that includes cyclists from all of Toronto, creates a common narrative, and allows people to organize and advocate as loudly and proudly as is needed with a shared, powerful voice?

The choice for our members is:  Which one?  Do we want real, substantive change powered by the masses or a fringe group that fights and scratches with extremely limited resources to make slow and iterative change?

In January, 80+ members joined staff and the board for a wonderful 2-day strategy session, the outcomes of which will be shared in the next week along with our action plan for the next 12 months.  What came out of that session was that we want 10,000 members.  We want to increase our engagement with schools and safe routes to get there.  We want to have more members in the suburbs and to continue to support new comers or just new cyclists in starting to ride.  No part of our strategy had to do with preserving the glory of the word union.  In fact, reading our strategy, it seems we already are Cycle Toronto – a group that can operate in a wide range of activities from “learn to cycle classes” for large insurance companies, to leading protest rides and demanding equitable road share at city hall.

In a city mired in geographically and philosophically polarized partisanship, shouldn’t we, the lovers of the bike, lead the charge in being inclusive?  We can create bridges for discussions that can change this city.  We plan to only get louder, and advocate more boldly in the future and can do so equally well under either name.  The difference is that one name allows far more people to self-identify as part of our fold and that may just make all the difference in making Toronto the best damn place to ride a bike in the world.

Please vote for the change.  Come to the AGM or please send a proxy.  This is a great time to re-commit to the individual, person by person advocacy that can create real change.  Please make your choice, and then recruit two new members to vote with you in whichever direction you choose.  This is your union, but the opportunities to be a united set of cyclists as Cycle Toronto are too great to ignore.



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8 Responses to “Unions are Great. Bikes are Great. Cycle Toronto.”

  1. When a union isn’t a union | Origins of Politics Says:

    […] There are important discussions going on here and here concerning the union name […]

  2. gwheeler Says:

    I appreciate Mes’s views. I totally see where he is coming from.

    Here’s my perspective.

    I have been doing outreach for the bike union at various events since June 2011. When I first heard about the consideration of a name change, I thought it was bizarre, until one tabling session outside Evergreen Bikeworks.

    A guy walking past my table through the farmers market cheerfully asked, “What’s this?” I replied with practice-made-perfect conversation starter, “Hi! Are you familiar with the Toronto Cyclists Union?”

    This was what he said, “Union?”

    Then, he turned and strode briskly away.

    Through my many discussions with others in support of the bike union, including members, non-members, board members, volunteers, partners, I have come to realise that it is the work of the bike union that leads them to support the organisation. Amongst them, there are those who stated that they were initially turned off by the word union, but after they understood the work the organisation does, they decided to give their support.

    On the other hand, people who have serious issues with the organisation for the name’s sake, will not even allow us the chance to tell them who we are and what we are about. That’s one closed door that the name change just might help to open.

    This is my two cents. I am open to considering more viewpoints.

    I must also take a moment to thank the bike union board members for taking bold actions on putting this issue forward for discussion. I believe this proposal was made in strength and not in cowardice. I look forward to engaging in more constructive discussion with more persons interested in this issue.

  3. Two perspectives • One goal | Mez Dispenser Says:

    […] Cluley (a great guy, in my opinion) has written a long blog post explaining why he supports changing the name of the Toronto Cyclists Union to ‘Cycle […]

  4. Five Reasons, Two Names, One Goal: Your Board of Directors Adds to the Name Change Conversation « Name Change Conversation Says:

    […] We also appreciate the initiative and feedback we’ve seen on Dave Meslin’s first blog post, Nick Cluley’s post, and Dave Meslin’s second post. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  5. Should the Toronto Cyclists Union change their name to Cycle Toronto? | Biking Toronto Says:

    […] Cluley, who is on the Board of Directors of the Union, has also written a post FOR the name change (again, I encourage you to read the full post), which can be summarized as […]

  6. What’s in a name? | The General Ledger Says:

    […] Nick Cluley: Union’s are great. Bikes are great. Cycle Toronto. […]

  7. brian Says:

    while i no longer live in the city … the bike union makes me feel like it’s an organization I’de want to be active in and be part of … whereas something like Cycle Toronto sounds like something that is nice but doesn’t do much to advocate for change…

    having canvassed for many orgs in the past, it’s easy to see how small changes to an org might make it palatable to folks who are turned off by something ….but here’s the thing.

    1) folks who find reasons to be turned off by the name or the design or some other little thing more than likely will find other reasons to not join (unless it appears to do nothing that might ruffle feathers and gives them a lot of swag… ) … i’de be willing to bet that the majority of people turned off by the word union, do so because it gives them the impression they will have to do something and not get free things … 🙂

    2) i truly believe that it is better to put effort into building a strong active organization, rather than water it down so that your numbers can swell … I get that more members equals more money to do advocacy with … and I can see an argument for being an organization with a large funding base and small active group of activists (if you still want to be called that even 😉 … but I think it’s grasping at straws to pursue the line of thinking that if you only had more members, you would be taken more seriously by the powers that be.

    sooo …. my non-member suggestion would be … 🙂

    – drop the internal conflict about name changing right away. It’s a diversion of struggle (ie. we’re having a hard time getting the change we want, so lets struggle with each other to change the org)

    – stop pursuing a path of trying to make the organization more palatable to many. celebrate yourselves for all the great work you do and know that it will inspire others to action. Quality vs. quantity

    – admit that you have many uphill battles to fight, and while it’s good to look at how you can represent people outside your comfort zones, there will be many (including the city, businesses etc) .. who might like the idea of saying they support you as long as you don’t do anything but look nice.

    2 cents while u can get em

  8. Cycling Advocates Consider a Re-Brand | news | Torontoist Says:

    […] “The guiding force is to look at our mission, which is safe streets, a healthy community, and a vibrant voice,” said Cluley. “I don’t know that being called the Toronto Cyclists Union directly relates to or supports any of that. I don’t know that it doesn’t, either. I don’t know that it matters.” He is quick to emphasize that the board will embrace the membership’s decision either way and move on. (More of Nick’s thoughts on the proposal can be found on his blog.) […]

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