One CATS controversy nearing resolution as union, management agree to new contract | News

Years of contentious board meetings and threats of a strike that could halt service bus service in Baton Rouge and Baker may be coming to an end after the Capital Area Transit System’s union and management agreed to a proposed new contract.

“We are pleased that an agreement has been reached between CATS and the transit union,” interim CEO Dwana Williams said in a statement about Thursday’s agreement. “Our employees, both union and non-union, are dedicated to serving the people of Baton Rouge, and this agreement will allow all of us at CATS to move forward together and continue to prioritize that service.”

The two groups had been undergoing contentious negotiations since 2020 that often spilled into public view and prompted a federal lawsuit from the union accusing former CATS CEO Bill Deville of union busting.

But within months of Williams being named CEO after Deville was stripped of his title and duties amid a series of scandals, she appears to have broken the two-year logjam.

“The things that the former administration was fighting us on were very trivial,” said Shavez Smith, a bus operator and trustee for the union. “A lot of things were held up because of the previous administration. … We closed it out attorney free. Neither side had an attorney, just adults working in the best interest of the agency.”

The proposed agreement goes before the CATS’ Board of Commissioners for a vote at their July 19 meeting, board President Kahli Cohran said.

Cohran said he hasn’t reviewed the proposal yet but called the end to the negotiations “a positive thing.”

The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents CATS bus operators, mechanics, janitors and utility staff, agreed to a 5% wage increase, increased flexibility with vacation time and greater protections for operators during agencies into bus wrecks, Smith said.

Under the current contract, CATS employees were unable to use their vacation time if they were suspended in order to keep collecting pay, something they would be able to do under the proposed new contract, Smith said. Also, CATS management would be limited to reviewing bus footage to 10 minutes on either end of a wreck involving a CATS bus, something that would prevent management from penalizing operators for minor infractions throughout the day unrelated to the incident, Smith said.

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The uniform allowance, or checks that CATS employees receive for maintaining their agency uniforms, would also be increased, Smith said.

The union’s demands that were rejected by Deville’s administration were approved by Williams without any changes, Smith said.

Smith also attended the board of commissioners’ monthly meeting last Tuesday to compliment interim Chief Administrative Officer Keith Cunningham’s “open door policy” with union leadership, which he credited for the two groups being able to come to an agreement.

Union members would regularly attend board meetings to criticize Cunningham’s predecessor, Pearlina Thomas, who was fired by Deville in January amid additional controversies. Smith said Thomas was trying to “dismantle” the union rather than negotiate the contract.

Thomas and Deville are suing the union in the 19th Judicial District Court for defamation related to accusations of mismanagement leveled against them by union members during a board meeting last year.

The union’s lawsuit against the agency is also continuing to proceed in federal court. Smith said he was unsure how long that would take to resolve.

Under the new agency leadership, Smith said, the union is happy, for now.

“I’m happy as long as they continue making things happy, as long as the public keeps moving forward, the buses keep rolling,” Smith said. “The agency and this administration, so far, is providing that.”


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