A Chicago bus driver is filing a lawsuit against the city’s transit authority, alleging that the CTA called the police on him and slapped him with a rule-violation notice in retaliation for holding discussions with coworkers about transporting police to demonstrations against police brutality and racism. The lawsuit comes amid mounting police violence in Chicago, where between 240 and 1,000 people have been arrested at uprisings touched off by the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old black man.
Erek Slater, who is forty years old and has worked as a bus operator for CTA for fourteen years, is a union steward and elected executive board member of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241. According to a draft lawsuit viewed by Jacobin, CTA management has repeatedly and illegally disrupted Slater’s attempts to hold conversations with off-duty coworkers “regarding the concerns and rights of bus operators relative to orders” to transport police to demonstrations and potential orders to take “arrested demonstrators away from communities where many of these drivers live.”
Slater’s attorney, labor and employment lawyer Nick Kreitman, says that upon arriving at Chicago’s North Park Bus Garage Friday morning, Slater was “taken out of service” and given a “violation notice” related to an off-duty discussion he held on May 31 about the “safety, political and moral concerns of fellow bus operators.” When the CTA allegedly ordered Slater removed from the premises on Friday, management “subsequently called the Chicago Police Department,” Kreitman says. Slater, Kreitman emphasized to Jacobin, “is authorized to be on the premises of the North Park Bus Garage as the elected union official outside of operating a bus.”
In a June 5 Facebook post detailing the incident, Slater wrote, “We must not be intimidated from exercising our hard-won democratic and constitutional rights. We must mobilize disciplined, non-violent mass actions led by respected working people and our organizations to defend our rights and stop state violence and intimidation.”
Slater plans to file the lawsuit on Monday against the CTA. The document charges that, on May 31, Slater attempted to hold a discussion with between twenty and twenty-five off-duty coworkers at picnic tables outside CTA’s North Park Bus Garage. At that time, the suit says, the workers were approached by a CTA senior manager for the bus garage who called Slater an “idiot” and accused him of violating CTA’s ban on “wildcat strikes.” According to the lawsuit, the senior manager then threatened to call the police on Slater to force him from the premises.
This was not the only alleged incident. On June 1, Slater says he attempted to have another conversation with eight off-duty drivers in the break room of the same site. The same senior manager allegedly entered and ordered them to halt the conversation, but several minutes later, Slater again initiated the discussion, this time with five drivers. The manager once again came into the break room, according to the draft lawsuit, and ordered Slater to stop. The manager then allegedly threatened to forcibly expel Slater from the premises.
According to Kreitman, the accusations from management don’t hold water. “He was just holding a discussion, and that’s protected by the First Amendment,” Kreitman says. “You do have the right to refuse unsafe orders in good faith if there’s serious risk of harm or injury, demand the hazard is corrected and the employer fails to do so, and there isn’t enough time to go through formal channels to address the issue. Workers do have that right and are allowed to discuss that right.”
“We may have Humvees on our streets,” Kreitman continued, “but that doesn’t mean that the First Amendment is suspended for public employees. They have legitimate moral, political, and safety concerns about having to participate in police activities against demonstrations, and they should be able to discuss those.”
The CTA did not immediately return a request for comment.
While Erek Slater was not available for comment, his father, Les Slater, told Jacobin, “The CTA thinks their employees have no rights to discuss things, especially if they don’t agree. This legal injunction is to get the CTA to back off and recognize all their workers’ freedom of speech.”