Already unpopular with much of the rank and file of his own agency, CATS CEO Bob Mirabito’s relationship with union leaders plummeted to a new low this week after a dispute erupted during a meeting to negotiate the employee union contract.

The purpose of the meeting was to begin negotiations on the contract that governs everything from employee salaries and time off to disciplinary policies and benefits. The opportunity for a clean slate immediately went awry, with Mirabito kicking the meeting off by terminating one of the union officials in the room, according to accounts by various union officials who were there. Mirabito also removed two other union officials. One of the officials said he was put on suspension pending termination shortly before the meeting, and the other one Mirabito said couldn’t be part of the negotiations because he’s considered an inactive employee.

Union officials called it intimidation, saying Mirabito was continuing a pattern of retaliation and disrespect toward employees he dislikes and was purposefully setting a hostile tone at the beginning of the negotiations. Mirabito in prepared statements blamed the union for putting a stop to the negotiations.

“We were prepared to move forward today before the union leaders walked out of the room, and we are prepared to move forward at the earliest opportunity when these talks can be rescheduled. Our goal remains to maintain a strong working relationship with the union officials,” Mirabito said in a statement.

He declined to be interviewed for the story.

Ray Rigera, international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, representing 200,000 transit workers in the U.S. and Canada, said he attends negotiations across the country every week and has never seen such an act of disrespect or intimidation by an administration to its employees.

“It was totally unprofessional. They are pissed at the union, to be perfectly frank,” Rigera said. “This is a way to retaliate. It’s unheard of.”

Rigera advised the remaining union leaders to leave the meeting.

“I told them we would not negotiate under these conditions and they were not bargaining in good faith,” he said.

In his statement, Mirabito said he asked three union representatives to leave because the current contract precludes inactive employees from participating in contract negotiations.

But the union officials said the only reason they were considered inactive is that Mirabito punished two of them before the meeting started.

Alfred Weeden, a bus operator for four years, said he was terminated on the grounds he abandoned his bus, a claim he disputes. Weeden said he requested a day off and only left his bus after a relief operator showed up to take his place. He said there was no lapse in service, but the CATS administration said because it was not authorized, he is being accused of leaving without permission.

Weeden and other union officials said he was terminated before the meeting started in front of everyone in the room.

Weeden said he is appealing his termination.

Frederick Quiett was indefinitely suspended ahead of the meeting, he said, because he left a shift a couple hours early when he fell ill. Quiett, a six-year maintenance worker with CATS, said he was charged with insubordination for leaving early and not finishing a task.

Christopher Huddleston, a bus operator, said he was injured when he slipped down the steps of his bus from rain water leaking into the vehicle. Because he is currently unable to drive, the CATS administration said he is considered inactive and had to leave the room, he said.

The issue has raised eyebrows for some Metro Council members, but the council has limited governing authority over the agency.

Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said she’s very familiar with union contract negotiations from her work in human resources and found the move by CATS administration unwise.

“You shouldn’t be starting negotiations with a conflict,” she said.

Although Mirabito has been under fire for a series of conflicts with his employees and council members in recent months, Edwards said, she doesn’t think it’s appropriate for the council to micromanage the CATS board. She also said her constituents are not complaining about problems with CATS service, which is her primary concern.

Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, a vocal critic of Mirabito’s who has called for his resignation, said this is just the latest example of Mirabito’s tyrannical leadership style.

“If you’re going to fire someone, why would you wait until the union negotiations to fire them?” she said. “He’s having a free-for-all; he’s decided that he can do and say whatever he wants, to hell with everyone else because the board is going to back him up.”

Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who is the CATS board president, said she wouldn’t comment for this story.

In recent months, employees have picketed the agency, and Marcelle and union leaders held a press conference calling for the CATS board to fire Mirabito because of his disrespectful attitude toward employees and alleged disregard for the union contract rules.

Mirabito has previously said he is abiding by the contract but has noted he has different interpretations to parts of it.

He also issued an apology after making racially charged comments about his employees in an interview, lamenting that some potential riders might be reluctant to use the bus service because the CATS workforce is disproportionately African American.

But the CATS Board has continued to back him and in April showed its support by giving him a nearly 20 percent raise, making Mirabito one of the highest-paid public officials in East Baton Rouge Parish government.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.