Loud, Proud, and Out of Work

Miami-Dade bus driver Ezell Robinson has taken issue with his bosses and his union leadership, which may explain why he's now unemployed

Probably no bus driver at the Metro-Dade Transit Agency knows the official rules and regulations better than Ezell Robinson, who's been driving county routes for twenty years. And no one has been more outspoken or determined to use any leverage or technicality to ensure that his rights, and those of his co-workers, are upheld. This is, after all, a man who is known around Transport Workers Union of America Local 291 as “the lawyer” and who routinely carries a black leather satchel filled with a dozen or so policy manuals. For years he's been a constant irritant to both the top MDTA brass and his own union leadership.

But since this past August, the 46-year-old self-proclaimed policy animal has been out of work, fired because he refused to take a drug test. Robinson claims the termination came in retaliation for his advocacy on behalf of fellow workers who had complaints against the union and MDTA, and because he routinely attacks the cozy relationship he says exists between union president Eddie Talley and the transit agency management. Perhaps most important, he says, the firing occurred just as Robinson was poised to launch a campaign for the union's executive vice presidency.

“The county is not the only paymaster!” snapped Robinson on a recent Monday morning as he sat in the food court at the county's Stephen P. Clark Government Center, awaiting an arbitration hearing that would be his final appeal against the termination. Sitting with a colleague at a nearby table -- and the target of the comment -- is Sam Milton, union shop steward and representative for the rank-and-file, who squinted as he looked up at Robinson. A knot of wrinkled skin formed between his eyes. His business this morning was to act as a union observer on Robinson's behalf, but it was clear the two men enjoyed little camaraderie. “Oh yes, it is,” he snapped back.

Following this mid-April accident, Robinson was fired for refusing to take a drug test before being treated by a doctor
photos courtesy MDTA
Following this mid-April accident, Robinson was fired for refusing to take a drug test before being treated by a doctor

Robinson, dressed in a collarless white shirt, cream-colored slacks, and a matching vest that covered the beginnings of a paunch, stiffened in his seat.

“You need to know how to make some money,” said Milton.

“Oh, I know how to make money,” Robinson shot back.

“Oh yeah? Look to me like you fired.”

Robinson pointed down to his brand-new shoes. “Stacy-Adams,” he said smugly. “Only $18. It's not how much you make; it's how you spend it.” A gold medallion hung from his neck like a self-conferred medal. Which might not be unthinkable: Combine his disdain for union honchos and a righteous defense of his cause, and Ezell Robinson possesses both the fire and zealousness of a crusader.

Milton appeared flustered. “Well, I've got to make some phone calls,” he said, rising and turning away. Robinson reached for his umbrella and, handling it as though it were a walking stick, strode jauntily to the elevators and his hearing.

A short time later, in another display of maverick resolve, Robinson sent his union-appointed lawyer packing. The man's strategy was unimpressive, he said; he could do better representing himself before the hearing examiner appointed by the American Arbitration Association. The examiner would have 30 days to submit a recommendation to the County Attorney's Office, and if the county ultimately ruled against him, Robinson said, he was prepared to file a discrimination suit against the transit agency.

The issue of the drug test began back in mid-April, when Robinson was driving his route south on NW Second Avenue. A minivan parked at the curb suddenly pulled out in front of him, and though Robinson stomped on the brakes, it was too late. “It was a tremendous accident,” he recalled in an interview a few weeks before the hearing. “Everybody standing on the bus flew toward the front, and glass flew up everywhere. It was total pandemonium.” Three passengers in the minivan were taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital, along with several bus passengers. (It was not Robinson's first crash. Nearly a decade ago, he successfully battled the agency to expunge an accident from his driving record after he proved he wasn't at fault.)

Following company protocol his MDTA supervisor drove out to the scene. When José Villamarzo arrived, Robinson already was suffering from acute pain in his head and neck and beginning to feel dizzy. He asked Villamarzo to take him to the emergency room at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.

En route, Robinson said, he informed Villamarzo that he intended to head home and rest after the medical exam, but his supervisor reminded him that he'd first have to take a drug test at the hospital. Agency policy dictates that drug and alcohol screenings are mandatory when people are injured following an accident, he explained; but Robinson argued that Federal Transit Administration regulations allow a wait of up to 32 hours. The men realized they were heading for a standoff and gradually fell silent. The sound of traffic humming along the road was all they shared for long moments. Villamarzo gripped the steering wheel tightly. Robinson, his head throbbing, tried to ease the pain by massaging his neck. It was little comfort.

When they reached the emergency room, Villamarzo ignored Robinson and told a hospital staffer that MDTA wanted an immediate drug test for the bus driver. An ER nurse took Robinson's temperature and blood pressure (which was high) and then told him he'd have to go upstairs to the Occupational Health Center and take the test before receiving treatment. Robinson grudgingly complied but once there he was told to wait in line. Frustrated, he turned to leave, but Villamarzo warned him that a refusal would result in disciplinary action. The bus driver blew up. “I know my rights!” he shouted. “I want to see a doctor!”

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