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Everything you need to know about the possibility of CATS bus driver strike

CATS buses remember slain driver Ethan Rivera.
Sarah Delia
CATS bus.

With the possibility of hundreds of Charlotte Area Transit System drivers walking off the job next month, there are a lot of questions about what riders should expect. Here’s what you need to know to understand how we got here, and what’s likely to come next.

How can CATS drivers strike — I thought public employees couldn’t unionize in North Carolina?

You’re right — public-sector unions are a no-no here. But CATS bus drivers actually work for a private, third-party company called RATP Dev that manages and operates the bus system on behalf of the city. Bus drivers belong to the SMART Union, which negotiates with RATP Dev.

It’s an awkward arrangement at best. While Charlotte has its name on the buses, and CATS is the city’s transit system, the city and its transit agency are really just bystanders and observers, watching two third-party groups play chicken with contract negotiations and a possible strike without the ability to intervene.

What are the issues holding up a contract?

Pay and benefits are two big ones. Charlotte bus drivers rejected a contract in September that would have included a nearly 11% raise, but would also reduce the number of days drivers can take off without a reason. The current contract pays first-year bus drivers about $18.80 an hour. Under the proposal, new drivers would make $20.80 an hour.

Other issues reportedly include health insurance premiums, retirement benefits and driver safety, especially in the wake of last year’s road rage shooting death of bus driver Ethan Rivera.

So how close is an actual strike?

CATS drivers voted to authorize a strike on Saturday, Jan. 7. Under federal law, there’s a mandatory 30-day cooling-off period. And the local union must file paperwork about the strike with the federal government. So, the most likely date for any strike to begin would be the second week in February.


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What are CATS’ plans for dealing with a strike?

In the event of a walkout, CATS plans to suspend all express routes and try to preserve at least some service on 13 core routes, the busiest in the system and all serving uptown and other critical areas like hospitals. On those remaining bus routes, service would be reduced to every 30 to 60 minutes.

Could CATS actually operate those core bus routes during a strike?

That’s a big question mark. According to WSOC-TV, the vote by drivers to authorize a strike was 256-14. That would indicate a total of 270 drivers voted. CATS said last summer that it had just under 500 bus operators working for RATP Dev. In theory, that would mean somewhere around 230 drivers didn’t cast a ballot in the strike authorization vote.

To operate its 13 minimum, core routes at reduced frequencies, CATS says it would need 76 bus drivers a day. In theory, that means there should be enough drivers available to keep at least some buses running. But in fact, it’s not clear how many CATS drivers who didn’t vote to authorize a strike would keep working if their colleagues walked out, or how that might change over time if a strike persists.

CATS says the agency “will not have forewarning from RATP Dev of the number of bus operators that report to work until the time of their shifts.” So, in the event of a strike, CATS would be left to sort out the number of workers available each day, with no minimum number guaranteed, as it tried to figure out which routes it can run.

Have we been here before?

Yes. CATS bus operators almost struck in 2014 after contract negotiations failed. But negotiations continued right up to the strike deadline, and a last-minute deal averted a walkout.

How big a deal would a strike be?

For CATS bus riders, a strike could be devastating. The city says that a large majority of bus riders are low-income people of color, and many don’t have any other transportation options. Interruptions to bus service could mean that riders don’t have a way to get to jobs, stores or doctor’s appointments.

But there’s a caveat: CATS has a lot fewer bus riders than it did just a decade ago. In 2014, the last time a strike was on the table, there were about 70,000 daily trips on local CATS buses. By 2019, that had shrunk by almost half, to 37,000. Now, CATS has about 18,000 daily weekday trips on its local buses, a 75% decline.

In real terms, that means a stunning 52,000 local bus trips that CATS carried in 2014 aren’t happening anymore. COVID accounts for part of the dropoff, but it’s a trend that’s been happening for years, fueled by unreliable service and long travel times on CATS buses.

Chart of Annual bus ridership showing declines

It’s a similar story on CATS express buses. In 2019, express buses accounted for just over 3,000 trips a day. Now, that’s down to barely 800.

So, it’s likely that a bus driver strike would have a much smaller impact on the broader public than it would have a decade ago.

How does this strike fit into CATS’ bigger problems?

CATS has had no shortage of bad headlines in the past few years. Between questions about transparency, CATS’ long-stalled transit expansion plan, plunging ridership, a driver shortage, cuts to service, the pandemic and leadership changes from the CEO on down, it’s clearly been a challenging time.

The last thing that CATS needs right now is a bus driver strike, which would of course push ridership even lower and make it harder for CATS to win back riders and rebuild trust. The agency has every incentive to avoid such a strike — but of course, as we already mentioned, there’s little that CATS can directly do to influence the outcome.

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Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.