CHICAGO — Three CTA bus drivers fired after they were caught allegedly drinking and driving are now back behind the wheel, and the CTA appears to regret its decision. A Fox Chicago News/ Better Government Association investigation found the process that allowed the drivers to get their jobs back is a lesson in Chicago-style backroom wheeling and dealing.
The bus drivers were all charged with drunk driving while they were off-duty and were subsequently fired after they lost their Commercial Driver’s Licenses. Under CTA rules, any driver who does not have a valid CDL for 180 days can be terminated.
CTA President Rich Rodriguez said the agency took the extraordinary step of rehiring those drivers as something of an olive branch. Earlier this year, the CTA was millions of dollars in the red and needed to restructure its labor agreements. Rodriguez said they allowed the former employees with DUI’s to get back behind the wheel as an enticement to get the Amalgamated Transit Union to the bargaining table to talk about furlough days and cutbacks.
“It was basically an opportunity for us to try to bring the unions to the table,” Rodriguez said. “This is what they fought for. This is what they demanded and this is what they wanted if they were going to sit down and discuss… concessions with us.”
As it turned out, the union refused to negotiate, and the CTA eliminated the jobs of hundreds of drivers.
Michael Simmons of the Amalgamated Transit Union denied there was any deal to get the union to the table.
“None of that happened. We don’t negotiate using grievances,” Simmons said.
Simmons said the union fought for the DUI bus drivers out of compassion. All are veteran drivers with families who depend on their salaries.
“We do what any union would do for our members,” said Simmons. “Of course, safety is always first with us.”
“It’s important for organizations like the CTA to maintain good relationships with their unions, and I’m all for that,” said Better Government Association Executive Director Andy Shaw. “But you don’t buy labor peace by jeopardizing the safety of riders by rehiring people with drunken driving records.”
FOX Chicago News tracked down one of the drivers, Marilyn Smith. She was busted for DUI on July 4, 2008. According to police reports Smith had a blood-alcohol level of .14, well over the legal limit of .08. Smith told us she had had a beer and a shot when she was arrested while off-duty, but disputed whether that amount of alcohol should even warrant a DUI.
“I was not drunk,” she said. “Two beers will give you a DUI? So the whole city is driving drunk.”
Smith was fired after she lost her CDL for more than 180 days, but said she wasn’t surprised she got her job back. “No. Why should I be? It had nothing to do with the job,” Smith said. “You’re not a judge and I’m not in court and I’m not going to answer no more of your questions.”
Not only did the three bus drivers with DUI’s get their jobs back, they also received a total of $70,000 in back pay, according to a CTA spokesperson.
The three were among a total of ten fired employees the CTA agreed to rehire at the union’s behest. Rodriguez said he tried to stop the reinstatement when he learned some of the employees had DUI’s but the process was too far along. The union filed a lawsuit and the CTA agreed to take all the employees back.
“What we did is something that we never do,” said Rodriguez. “We have rules and that’s why they are in place, and we were willing to bend the rules in order to try to… avoid the mass layoffs.