City of Alexandria tries to censor ATU 981 transit workers

City of Alexandria tries to censor ATU 981 transit workers
City of Alexandria tries to censor transit workers

In an attempt to illegally censor transit workers, the City of Alexandria, LA, threatened to discipline Local 981 members if they carried out plans to hold a public town hall meeting on the need to increase funding for critical bus service.

The Local invited Alexandria city councilmembers to attend the public town hall with city residents in hopes of opening a conversation about the importance of adequate funding of bus service in the city. However, City Attorney Charles Johnson contacted Local President Darnice Briggs accusing him of violating Alexandria’s civil service rules and threatening to discipline him and other workers for insubordination.

Threatened legal action

Finding no language in the civil service rules that prohibited public employees from holding “public discussion with stakeholders and community members about an important issue like funding for public transportation,” the union’s legal counsel advised the city in a letter that the Local would take legal action in response to any violation of the transit workers’ First Amendment rights.

ATU Local 981 President Darnice Briggs, Jr.

“This is flat out censorship by the city,” says Briggs, Jr. “They are violating our First Amendment rights in an attempt to silence transit workers and divide us from riders who rely on public transportation each day.

Transit union, city of Alexandria embroiled in dispute
Richard Sharkey,, (318) 487-6490 2:04 p.m. CDT April 14, 2016
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(Photo: Richard Sharkey/The Town Talk)

A union says the city of Alexandria is trying to “illegally censor” employees of Atrans, the city bus transit system.

City Attorney Chuck Johnson, however, says the city is simply trying to get transit union officials to follow proper procedures. He also indicates that the transit union is using the controversy to try to pressure the city into a new contract that would increase Atrans employees’ pay.

More than 30 Amalgamated Transit Union members from around the state held a demonstration outside Alexandria City Hall last week to try to drum up support for more state transit funding.

Darnice Briggs, a city bus driver who is president of ATU’s Local 981 in Alexandria, was among Atrans employees at the demonstration.

The union planned to hold a “town hall” meeting on the need for additional transit funding and invited City Council members to attend, but the city “threatened to discipline Amalgamated Transit Union Local 981 members” over that, an ATU news release said.

“This is flat-out censorship by the city. They are violating our First Amendment rights in an attempt to silence transit workers and divide us from riders who rely on public transportation each day,” Briggs said.

“We will not be silent. Bus riders can’t get where they need to be because bus, train and trolley service has been slashed because there is not enough money to fund public transit. It’s time for state lawmakers to invest more in public transportation. It’s good for the community,” he added.

Johnson, in a statement, said the city is not censoring anyone but is trying to ensure the union follows established rules.

Chuck Johnson (Photo: Town Talk file photo)
“No employee of the city has been threatened with disciplinary action for the lawful exercise of any constitutional rights. However, our City Charter and the rules of the Alexandria Civil Service Commission place certain limitations on contact between city employees and City Council members regarding operations,” Johnson said.

“Those rules expressly prohibit certain types of political activity. My job requires that I simply inform the employees of where the line is.

“The right of unions to bargain collectively is free speech; but bus unions do not represent riders, they represent bus department employees. Any concerns the riders have may be brought to their elected officials at any time for redress. That is not what is happening here,” Johnson said.

Antonette Bryant, an ATU international representative based in Washington, D.C., attended the demonstration in Alexandria last week. She said the message of that “rally” and similar demonstrations around the state is “transit lives matter.”

More money is need to improve conditions for transit riders, she said.

“We have a problem of passengers having to wait out in the sun, in the rain, having inclement weather, having no shelters, bus stops on the side of the road some you can’t even see, no information available to them,” Bryant told The Town Talk at the demonstration.

The ATU news release said Johnson accused Briggs of violating the Civil Service rules by inviting council members to a “town hall” meeting and threatened “to discipline him and other workers for insubordination.”

“The union’s legal counsel sent a letter threatening legal action against the city for violating workers’ First Amendment rights after reviewing the Civil Service rules and finding no restrictions for prohibiting public employees from holding ‘public discussion with stakeholders and community members about an important issue like funding for public transportation,’” the ATU said in its release.

ATU International President Larry Hanley said in a statement that any attempt to “trample on the free speech rights of transit workers … is a real abuse of power and unlawful. Transit workers will continue our campaigns to expose the truth and protest as long as it takes to protect our livelihoods and those of our riders and our community.”

Bryant said Mayor Jacques Roy's administration has “tried intimidation factors and tactics to prevent us from speaking on it, which is a direct violation not only of union business … but also the freedom of speech.”

Alexandria budget includes 3 percent pay raises

Johnson’s statement indicates he thinks the union’s actions are a ploy to try to get more money for Atrans workers.

The 2016-17 city budget, which takes effect May 1, includes 3 percent pay raises for all workers.

“Atrans provides an important service to the community. I do not wish to see it imperiled by Mr. Briggs’ contract (salary) demands. We have been told — through negotiations — that if the city will not approve the deal the union wants, they will seek to eliminate our federal funding for transit. This will only hurt the people, approximately 10,000 per year, most in need of public transportation,” Johnson said.

“The city would like to receive more funding for transit, if available, and we would be glad to partner in such efforts. We have never been asked to do so by the union or the riders, and we were not invited to join the discussion.

“Don’t be confused by misinformation and the rhetoric of self-interest. We stand firm in our commitment to providing quality bus service, but we must do so within the limitations of the annual budget appropriations adopted by the City Council,” Johnson’s statement concluded.

In the current fiscal year, the city budget’s Municipal Bus Fund revenue totals about $3.2 million. More than $2 million of that comes in a transfer from the Utility Fund.

Councilman Ed Larvadain III said more transit funding is needed in Alexandria and statewide.

Ed Larvadain III (Photo: Courtesy)
“We want to encourage folks to use public transit. It’s good. It’s healthy. It’s inexpensive, and it’s good to move people throughout the city,” Larvadain said.

Briggs said the Atrans system has very few bus shelters. “We have about a thousand stops throughout the city of Pineville and Alex. Out of those thousand, we may have a total of 10 shelters,” he said.

Larvadain said the city is in dire need of more bus shelters.

“You have people in wheelchairs. You have people who have physical handicaps, and they’re forced to sit or to stand ... in horrible weather conditions. You want to make sure people are comfortable, because we want people to use the mass transit,” Larvadain said.