Source: US Amalgamated Transit Union
The union that represents the Regional Transit Authority’s employees is demanding extra pay for city bus drivers who shuttled seniors out of hot apartment buildings after Hurricane Ida.
The Amalgamated Transit Union 1560 is also demanding the resignation of the RTA’s chief executive, Alex Wiggins, and the reinstatement of union President Valerie Jefferson as an RTA employee.
Union officials said in a Monday statement that Wiggins has a history of retaliating against those not on board with his policies. They say Jefferson, a 28-year veteran of the agency, was fired recently for demanding that the RTA pay its employees what they are owed.
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ATU represents the majority of the RTA’s staff of roughly 550 people. The RTA operates buses, streetcars, ferries and paratransit services in New Orleans and Kenner.
“This agreement with hurricane pay was a fair deal, but they don’t want to pay them now,” Jefferson said in a statement. “They were down drivers. Half left the city. Others were dealing with damage to their homes. The operators who came sacrificed to do so.”
The RTA, however, claims that Jefferson was fired for reasons unrelated to her advocacy on behalf of drivers, though they wouldn’t detail specifics. An agreement a spokesperson provided, which Jefferson signed Sept. 5, states the RTA will pay its workers the equivalent of 22 hours of salary for each day they show up to work after the storm.
“This agency is clear that our transit workers provide reliable transportation to doctors appointments, work, and to other critical destinations all year round,” RTA officials said in a Wednesday statement. “The additional ‘hurricane pay’ will be included in the regularly scheduled pay date, September 17.”
The agency did not specifically address the union’s claims about Wiggins.
New Orleans’ transit workers featured prominently in the city’s response to Ida: Public buses were used to transport hundreds of senior citizens from sweltering apartment buildings to cool shelters after the massive storm knocked out the local power grid. Before that plan was enacted, seniors were suffering in the heat, and five people died.
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Those buses also were key in another facet of the local response. Touted as “mobile cooling centers,” bus drivers staged their air-conditioned vehicles in centrally located spots in various neighborhoods, offering a cool space for all who desired it.
The union said Monday that the RTA lacked enough staffers to put those plans in motion before Jefferson and its other members went to work recruiting bus drivers. The drivers the union persuaded to come in worked 12-hour shifts, union representatives said.
Firing Jefferson because she spoke up for her colleagues is wrong, added union international President John Costa in a statement. “We won’t stand for it,” he said.
In calling for Wiggins’ resignation, union officials referenced his work history. Before coming to the RTA in 2019, Wiggins was the chief of security and law enforcement at Los Angeles’ public transit agency. A public investigation against him there that wrapped shortly before his departure found he had behaved abusively toward subordinates, according to WVUE-TV.
At another transit job in Chicago, Wiggins was placed on administrative leave with pay, WVUE reported. An employee urged the board that governs Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail system, to investigate Wiggins, adding that workers were “being outcast by those in power” at the agency.
Union members were slated to hold a rally at their office on 4230 Marigny St. in Gentilly at 6 p.m. Monday, they said.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated Wednesday, Sept. 15, with additional information from the RTA.