by naomi martin
Advocate staff writer
June 19, 2012
Just over a month after voters passed a dedicated tax to fund the Capital Area Transit System, the organization’s unionized workers said they will picket City Hall starting Monday to protest what they see as deplorable working conditions and a breach of their contract.
Bus service will continue uninterrupted as workers — who are on their days off — take part in the “informational picketing,” said Larry Patin, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1546.
The protest highlights rifts between CATS labor and management and comes after Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed legislation June 8 that would have shifted decision-making power over CATS’ operations from the Metro Council to the CATS board.
Patin said the union’s current 69 full-time employees are mainly protesting the management’s proposal to hire 25 additional part-time workers who, because of their part-time status, would not contribute to the union’s pension fund.
“I’ve sent letters to the CATS board chairman and CEO in the last two months and never heard anything back,” Patin said. “Everyone wants to ignore the issues. We’re picketing to get them to come to the table.”
However, CATS CEO Brian Marshall said Sunday he planned to meet with the union on Tuesday, but Patin said later in the afternoon that he had never been contacted about such a meeting.
In light of the upcoming stream of funding provided by the 10.6-mill property tax that passed April 21 in Baker and Baton Rouge, the expansion of CATS would require additional full-time and part-time workers, Marshall said.
Marshall said plans to hire 25 additional part-time workers, however, would not materialize until the CATS management re-negotiates its contract with the union in July.
However, Patin said he knew of no negotiations planned for July.
In a May 22 letter addressed to Marshall, Patin requested a meeting to negotiate the contract, writing that it had been two and a half years since the two sides had signed the union contract, which allows for 12 part-time employees.
“I’ve noticed you’ve hired several new employees in management and you have increased your part-time employees … it appears that money is coming in,” Patin wrote.
Patin said he never received a response to that letter, or another dated June 6 in which he requested an informal hearing regarding the 30-day suspension of an employee who had been operating a bus lift when a bus fell off of it — an incident Patin said resulted from “management not investing in safe equipment.”
“When Bus #105 fell off the lift jack, that was an accident waiting to happen,” Patin wrote in the June 6 letter.
Also, Patin filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in November alleging that CATS officials were “modifying the terms of the collective bargaining agreement” without consulting the union.
The National Labor Relations Board was closed Sunday and could not be reached for comment.
Marshall said that once CATS begins receiving its tax-dedicated funds in February 2013, it will be able to update its equipment, though he denied Patin’s allegations that any of it was unsafe.
“Is there a safety crisis at CATS? Absolutely not. Do we need to update our equipment and everything else? Absolutely we do, and that’s what were working toward,” Marshall said.
Marshall said he sympathized with the union’s gripes, but emphasized that the upcoming changes will ultimately improve the beleaguered system.
“I understand the frustration,” he said. “I think everybody’s frustrated. But for me this is part of what growth looks like. Things have been broken at CATS for so long and it won’t be fixed in a snap, but we’re working on it.”
Workers will picket at City Hall starting at 8 a.m. Monday, Patin said, and they will picket across the street from the CATS Terminal at 22nd and Florida streets starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday.