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

Robinson stalked out and returned to the emergency room, only to be told again he'd receive no treatment until he took the drug test. He refused and called his union, seeking the intervention of his division shop steward, Aaron Lee. “I wanted somebody to clarify for [the hospital staff] what the policy was,” he said. “I wanted somebody to back me up and get me in the hands of a doctor.” Finally the hospital offered to treat him if he paid a $295 deposit. And the bus driver fired another salvo: He demanded a written estimate for his treatment. Angry, his voice on edge, be bellowed across the ER lobby: “I want to see a doctor!” He was ordered out. Instead he headed back upstairs but was turned away there as well. Sure enough, the disciplinary hearing Villamarzo had promised did take place, and on August 3, Robinson was fired.

The timing of his dismissal was particularly unfortunate, he explained, and has stymied plans to get his campaign under way. With the election set for next May, Robinson worries that he'll miss the required six union meetings a candidate must attend within the twelve months prior to the vote. (Because he's been fired, he is not permitted to attend the meetings or even enter the union hall.) And if he loses his appeal, he won't be able to run for a union post anyway. While he awaits the arbitration ruling, he researches policy related to his case and sends off letters to the county manager.

He also has taken up a cause closer to home: sorting through the finances of an elderly neighbor who is diabetic, nearly blind, and often confused. She was having trouble understanding her mortgage, Robinson explained recently, and didn't comprehend that she'd sold her home and would have to move soon. In September she knocked on his door, asking for help. “I never really figured it out,” he said, “but I got her the $14,000 dollars she was supposed to get, and I got her daughter to help her relocate.” Others solicit his advice, as well. Fellow union employees sometimes stop by for his counsel on everything from benefits to disciplinary procedures. But at the moment, he mostly waits.

Eddie Talley, president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 291, is a frequent target of Ezell Robinson's criticism
Eddie Talley, president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 291, is a frequent target of Ezell Robinson's criticism

Two years ago Robinson made his first run for the post of executive vice president of the union. “We ran on an anti-corruption platform,” he said. “We were tired of watching Talley negotiate for himself instead of for the union.” Robinson was furious with the union president, and so were a number of other candidates vying for about a dozen union posts. Talley, they alleged, had dropped a $100-million grievance against the county (for farming out maintenance work to private contractors) as part of a settlement that also saw the county credit $43,555 for union leadership expenses to a union account.

“He dropped the [workers' grievance],” explained Robinson, still angry over the episode, “and when he signed for the new contract, he didn't get us retroactive pay for a raise he supposedly negotiated for, after he held up on signing the contract for a year. That adds up to about $800 for the average bus driver lost.”

Robinson's platform also challenged the union leadership's practice of having the county pay their salaries rather than taking the funds out of union dues. “You cannot represent union members effectively that way; you have to serve your paymaster,” he said.

The “anti-corruption” contingent intended to put an end to split shifts, too. Drivers often were left stranded between routes, or in the middle of routes, while they waited for a new bus to arrive to resume work. Unless the wait exceeded 90 minutes, the driver received no pay for the delay. And finally, Robinson and his sympathizers wanted management to comply strictly with its own disciplinary regulations. “People were getting fired and suspended without the proper procedures being completed,” he claimed. “Complaints often lacked corroboration from a witness. Sometimes you would be disciplined for an incident that occurred months ago. How could you defend yourself when you couldn't remember what had happened?”

The May 1998 election proved to be a complete rout of the reform candidates. Robinson himself only pulled in about eighteen percent of the votes against the incumbent vice president. The loss came as no surprise. “You had no seals on the ballot boxes,” he recalled. “The chairman of elections was handpicked by Talley, and there was a roving ballot box. The chairman, Frank Thomas, walked around with a ballot box to various locations, collecting votes. The outcome was highly suspicious, because the laws regarding the balloting process were not followed.”

Every problem with the union local, he concluded, could be traced to president Eddie Talley. “All the power lies with him,” Robinson asserted. “It's he that takes the initiatives without the rest of the governing board's participation. He surrounds himself with weak-willed people so that he can act on his own.”

Such talk is routine for Robinson, who has been one of Talley's strongest critics throughout the union president's eleven-year tenure, and who has stood toe to toe with MDTA director Danny Alvarez on several occasions, too. “Other bus drivers say I talk too much,” he admitted. “But when push comes to shove, I'm the person they turn to.”

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