What’s in a name?

Last month, members of the Toronto Cyclists Union received an email from the organization’s Board of Directors, introducing the new name they had chosen for the organization. At the upcoming Annual General Meeting, members will vote on accepting the Board’s new name: Cycle Toronto. Activist and founding TCU member Dave Meslin wrote on his blog soon after that members should reject the new name, for a variety of reasons. That sparked a great conversation on what value the old name has and on the merits of keeping it, versus migrating to the new name. A few other bloggers followed suit with their own discussions, and recently the TCU themselves invited the public to comment on their website. These are all great articles and I’d encourage you to take a look at all of them.

Last year, the TCU ran a membership drive that more than doubled the organization’s membership. That’s amazing, and an indicator of huge momentum. Just today, the TCU tweeted that more than 2,200 cyclists are now Bike Union members. Why change the name now?

Based on some social media discussions I came across last year, and based on the responses of some Board members on Meslin’s blog, it seems some folks believe the word “union” is holding some cyclists back from joining the organization. More importantly (to some, much less to me) the TCU has been passed over for grants and partnership opportunities because of the word. The Board also seems to believe that people are turned off by the political nature of cycling advocacy, and that a change of name (and implied change of direction) will appease these people.

If the Board thinks that using the word “union” is holding back the organization, then I think this is a great discussion to be having. The words we use are less important than the meanings behind those words. I like the word union – to me, it means a group of like-minded people working together to achieve a common goal. However, to some people, the word has picked up a very negative connotation, conjuring images of overpaid, underworked labourers walking off the job to protest wage and benefit cuts. Some people don’t want to be associated with that imagery.

According to the TCU’s Board, there’s a lot of people who would gladly fill out an application, if not for that word. I’ll admit I was once in that camp. I do like the idea of changing that word, for that reason. How about Toronto Cyclists Association? Or Toronto Cyclists Alliance? That’s a pretty cool name.

Changing that one word satisfies the need to distance ourselves from anti-union sentiment, while maintaining the idea that the success of this organization depends on its membership of engaged cyclists. At the same time, it’s a fairly minor change that will allow the organization’s fantastic momentum to continue.

Cycle Toronto, on the other hand, is a completely new name and a completely new brand. It sounds like the bike union and its membership model is going away, being replaced by a faceless corporate entity. The Toronto Cyclists Union has enormous brand recognition in Toronto, and it’s absolutely foolish to throw away that goodwill now, when the brand has momentum. Toronto Cyclists Union means a lot of things to a lot of people, both good and bad. Cycle Toronto doesn’t mean anything to anybody, and that’s a problem, not a benefit.

Even more foolish is the idea that we can be an organization that advocates for things that benefit cyclists without being political. The benefits of cycling are well documented and well understood. Frankly, the only major obstacle to expanding cycling infrastructure and getting more of us on the road is politicians. If there isn’t a group advocating to politicians on behalf of cyclists’ interests, then nothing will change. The Toronto Cyclists Union is very well positioned and very well known to be that voice. We must be proud of that, not try to gloss over our political roots.

I will be going to the Annual General Meeting on May 2nd to vote against this name change. I’m glad we’re talking about it though, and hope that the discussion doesn’t end here.

Some more discussions:

About Greg Burrell

Greg is an accountant, cyclist and political observer living in Toronto, Canada with too many cats.
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  • http://twitter.com/OpinionatedLizz Lizz B

    If people are offended by the word union, they should probably look into the definition and history of the word. I, personally, find it comforting – especially because it is political. (Though I think Toronto Cyclists’ Alliance is rad)

    If the union isn’t political, then what’s the point?

  • http://twitter.com/joedrew Joe Drew

    According to today’s conference call, the board consulted with a brand consultant when looking for new names; Cycle Toronto was selected as the best option that reflected what the group’s really about and was actually doable (URLs, etc).

    • http://www.gregburrell.ca Greg Burrell

      Thanks for this insight, but this worries me even more, actually. To come up with “Cycle Toronto”, what did the Board tell the brand consultant our group “is really about”? Like Lizz said, if the Board wants to take politics out of what the organization does, they are moving in completely the wrong direction.

      As for what’s actually doable, not changing the name at all is quite doable. But as a few other bloggers (and Board members) have pointed out, whatever name is chosen, the work will be done to implement it. For me, the feasibility of changing to any particular name (versus others) is irrelevant. The organization absolutely should pick the best name, whatever it is, and then deal with the logistics of changing it.

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