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

The April incident, however, was not the first unpleasantness Robinson has experienced over a test for substance abuse. Fourteen years ago he came up positive for marijuana. He claims to have led a clean life since, and personnel records seem to concur. The bus drivers undergo periodic random drug and alcohol tests, and Robinson hasn't tested positive. But the clean streak on his record came to a halt in March 1997. And again, Robinson says, he suspects his troubles were the result of his political activities.

It was just about that time that he and his sympathetic co-workers were getting their anti-corruption campaign into full swing for the May 1998 contest, and they'd begun agitating to change two election bylaws: those permitting write-in voting, and the handpicked selection of the election chairman, which, they argued, boosted cronyism and rigged results. For several months Robinson had been canvassing MDTA job sites with petitions.

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
Former MDTA bus driver Desmond Riley believes he was singled out for discipline because he campaigned on behalf of Robinson
photo courtesy desmond Riley
Former MDTA bus driver Desmond Riley believes he was singled out for discipline because he campaigned on behalf of Robinson

Then came the MDTA request to submit to an alcohol test. The transit agency maintains that the testing was random, but Robinson still has his doubts. He also claims he blew twice into the Breathalyzer, but the administering technician reported that he failed to blow properly into the device. So on May 20, 1997, Robinson was suspended for fifteen days for failing to complete the examination. He immediately filed a grievance against MDTA, and in a move that antagonized his own union leadership, he hired an outside lawyer to take the case. Why had he declined the services of the union attorney? Because union officials wanted to include his case in a larger civil suit they were bringing against the county by several other drivers accused of “failure to complete” their Breathalyzer examinations.

“[Talley's people] were getting into contract negotiations, and they wanted to use my grievance to bargain with,” Robinson said. “What Talley does is, he collects cases from all employees. You have people waiting for long periods, not knowing they're entitled to a hearing in 60 days. Then he goes to bargain with the county and he says, “I've got this and this and this. Now if you pay off these people and break me off a little something, then we can settle this.'” His voice rose in frustration as he elaborated. “You don't negotiate a contract with employee grievances! The issues you bring to the table are working conditions, benefits, and pay -- that's all!”

The class-action suit the union filed against the county was settled in October 1997, after the county found that, among other deficiencies, the Mount Sinai Medical Center's Breathalyzer had a straw that was too narrow. Coincidentally the settlement came just one day before Robinson's own arbitration hearing was scheduled on the matter -- evidence, he claimed, that union leadership had scrambled to resolve the case in order to steal the spotlight from him. His own case, though separate, was included in the settlement, but he is sure he would have won without the union's help. He and five other bus drivers had their suspensions rescinded and lost earnings restored. In all the county repaid about $12,500 to the six workers.

Talley takes full credit for the settlement and adds that Robinson made a mistake by going his own way. “He was supposed to be such an intelligent young man,” said the union president in a recent phone interview, “but here he goes spending [a lot of money] to get his own lawyer, while these people got their money scot-free and taken care of by the union.” But Robinson insists it was his own perseverance that led to the settlement, a relatively short four months after his suspension. “Some of those people had been waiting eighteen months for action,” he claimed.

If MDTA brass had any questions as to the kind of leadership Robinson would bring to the union as executive vice president, his next move left them little doubt. A few weeks after the settlement, he contacted the federal Department of Labor to complain that he and several other drivers who routinely worked more than 40 hours per week weren't receiving overtime pay. Just weeks before the May election, the Labor Department began its investigation. But when the vote count was in, Talley and his supporters still won handily, an outcome the union president attributes to the high caliber of the organization's leadership. And though the reformers successfully managed to change the rules to introduce electronic voting machines, they lost their move to redefine the post of election chairman. Robinson doesn't turn introspective to search for possible missteps of his own -- such as his relative inexperience or his refusal to be politic at times when it might have been expedient -- to explain his overwhelming defeat. The support for Talley, he said, stems from intimidation and fear.

Late that year the Labor Department concluded that Robinson and his co-workers had been counting drive time to work as time on the job and weren't permitted to collect overtime pay. “[Robinson] was totally embarrassed,” said the union president in a Southern drawl. “When they did the investigation, they found out he didn't come to work long enough to earn any overtime.”

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