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's first venture into union politics and his scuffles with his MDTA bosses left him, if anything, eager for further combat. And he has locked horns even more directly with transit agency management, specifically with director Danny Alvarez.

In June 1998 a passenger filed a complaint against 36-year-old part-time bus driver Desmond Riley, who had been with the agency for just a year and a half. The following month Riley was notified of the accusation and charged with violating the county's personnel rules: The passenger had complained that he'd missed her stop and then cussed her out after she'd called to express her objection. Riley disputes the claim and says he can't even remember the incident. What he does remember, clearly, was his activism during the failed anti-corruption platform's 1998 election bid months earlier. And he recalls that the union offered him no help after he was cited for the violation.

Despite his resolve and his knowledge of policy, Robinson's fate at MDTA remains uncertain
Steve Satterwhite
Despite his resolve and his knowledge of policy, Robinson's fate at MDTA remains uncertain

“The union never once came forward for me to ask MDTA to prove if the claim was factual,” he recently told New Times. After two departmental hearings on the matter, Riley said, he was encouraged to resign by Cathy Lewis, an MDTA personnel employee. “She called me three times in September to tell me I should resign and that she would then try to help me find me another job with the county.” Union shop steward Sam Milton also encouraged him to resign. “He told me, “If Dade County fired you, nobody is going to hire you.' He told me to start kissing ass.”

On September 4 Riley resigned, and a week later he turned to “the lawyer” for help. The two men met at Robinson's North Miami Beach house to discuss the matter. After reviewing records related to the complaint, Robinson noticed a variety of procedural holes. “A passenger who wished to make a formal complaint with MDTA must have a corroborating witness and must provide a written statement. That never happened,” he noted. And there were a number of inconsistencies in the handful of other complaints Riley discovered in his files. Some documents featured incorrect bus numbers, suggesting that the complaints had been carelessly checked at best, or even fabricated. Robinson counseled Riley to pull every record relating to his conduct from the county manager's office.

On a late September afternoon, Riley did just that. To his horror he discovered correspondence from MDTA director Danny Alvarez claiming that Riley had been fired for testing positive for cocaine. “He went berserk right there,” said Robinson. On November 24, 1998, Susan Torriente, an assistant to the county manager, faxed Alvarez to request an explanation. The director responded with a restatement of the charge: Riley had tested positive for cocaine.

It seemed to Robinson that the director's story was payback for Riley supporting him during the union election. And he began a campaign to counter what he deemed was a bald-faced lie. For weeks he showed the director's letter to any co-worker who would listen, speaking at times in front of dozens of employees at the MDTA station drivers' room, where workers took their breaks. He pointed to it as evidence of the depth of corruption and the degree to which Alvarez was allied with Talley. More than that, he advised Riley to hire an attorney. In February 1999 Assistant County Attorney Lee A. Kraftchick wrote Riley's attorney, asserting that the agency director had confused him with another employee and that it was “an inadvertent mistake.” Riley now drives tour buses with a private company.

Robinson went to bat for another bus driver in the summer of 1999, when Rachel Berry, an eleven-year veteran of MDTA, was involved in a traffic accident. (Berry spoke briefly with New Times and then referred subsequent questions to her attorney, Jamie Goodman.) Following a mandatory postaccident drug screening, Berry tested positive for marijuana and was told she would be fired. Berry, however, was able to prove she'd tested positive for the drug because of an herbal tea she'd been taking for an illness. The termination was canceled, but nevertheless she was demoted to the position of general helper.

The new role required her to work in a bus garage, and soon the bus fumes aggravated her illness, forcing her to miss work. In December 1999 she was hauled before a disciplinary board for her absences. Angry at union officials for revealing confidential information about her health to the MDTA administration in what she calls a bungled attempt to assist her after the initial termination, Berry decided to turn this time to Robinson for representation. He not only accompanied her to the hearing but went with her to the downtown office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to help her file a discrimination charge against the agency. (The EEOC found there was probable cause for a civil suit and sent its findings to the U.S. Department of Justice, which concurred and advised Berry to file a suit independently with her lawyer.)

During much of the hourlong hearing, Robinson recalled, he engaged MDTA director Alvarez in heated debate. “He was bullying her, he was crass, and I snapped back at him,” the bus driver said. The argument got so heated that Berry, fearing Alvarez might fire Robinson on the spot, asked her friend to step outside the meeting room, where she pleaded with him to take a more conciliatory approach. Robinson would have none of it. “The tone I had was: “This is the law, and we expect you to abide by the rules,'” he recounted.

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