Transit workers for the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, or CARTA, have filed a lawsuit against the authority, claiming their first amendment rights have been hindered at the monthly board meetings.
The lawsuit — filed by the Amalgamated Transit Union and Union Local 1212, which represents about 100 CARTA employees — alleges that board members have refused to allow union workers from speaking at public board meetings because of who they are and what they intend to say. Defendants on the lawsuit are listed as CARTA and CARTA's board chairman Stephen Jett.
Workers have protested in the past about being overworked, leading to an unsafe working environment, and feeling discriminated against in their positions. CARTA Executive Director Lisa Maragnano has admitted there is a driver shortage and drivers are asked to work seven days per week.
The complaint also alleges that "Resolution 566" passed by the board a few years ago is "facially unconstitutional" under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
According to the suit, the resolution states that anyone from the public wishing to speak at board meetings must give the board three days' advance written notice of the topic, that they speak on no other topic but that one and that they only speak for three minutes. The lawsuit states the resolution also allows chairman Jett to waive those requirements for "speakers and speech that CARTA prefers."
Local union President Kathryn Smith allegedly filed written requests under the provisions of Resolution 566 in February and March to discuss "workplace business" but was denied the opportunity to speak, the complaint states. It also alleges that Jett said union members are not "members of the public" and offered to "bargain" with them outside of board meetings.
Jett, reached by phone Wednesday, said he was "puzzled" by the complaint filed because he notified Smith last Friday she is on the board's agenda to speak at today's monthly board meeting. The complaint was filed Tuesday — four days after Jett notified Smith via email that she could speak for five minutes, he said.
"We are bending over backwards to accommodate their concerns," Jett said. "In an effort to accommodate them, I'm saying take five (minutes)."
Jett said Smith's requests in the past were not specific about what she wanted to address and the resolution is in place to make sure all comments are timely and appropriate as there is other business to discuss at meetings. As part of a union, there is also a collective bargaining agreement in place between CARTA and union members, which has procedures to file any grievances and resolve disputes workers may have about working conditions.
Smith said she wishes the union didn't have to go to court over this matter.
"It has been a shame that we had to file this lawsuit just to get the board's attention to hear what we have to say," Smith said Wednesday. "It would have been nice if they were eager to hear about the safety problems they are creating themselves."
Contact staff writer Allison Shirk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6651.