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

Berry was fired last March 21, and Robinson still voices outrage over her dismissal. “The demotion was supposed to be punishment for the accident,” he barked. “They've already disciplined her once; now they fire her because she got sick. Anyone is entitled to get sick. That's not grounds for firing her.” Berry's lawyer agrees. “Miami-Dade County was aware the job of general helper was not within her job requirements,” said Jamie Goodman. “Instead of putting her back as a bus operator, they terminated her because they regarded her as having a disability.”

Union president Talley says Berry was fired because she missed too much work. “What good did [Robinson] do for [Rachel Berry]?” he asked rhetorically during his phone interview. “He couldn't save her. He went down to represent her, and all he did was get her fired. Now he's fired, too.” But Berry disagreed: “The union is the reason I'm where I'm at now, because of the way they handled it.” And Goodman, who also may handle Robinson's lawsuit if he fails to get his job back, believes the activist's efforts were very productive. “I don't think Miss Berry, on her own, would have known where to go in terms of protecting her civil rights,” he said.

Talley has yet another reason to watch his back around Robinson. For several months now, the fired bus driver has been distributing documents that suggest Talley received a $25,000 retirement payment that was unwarranted. Robinson charged that Talley worked the sum into the language of the 1998 collective-bargaining agreement between the Transport Workers Union local and Metro-Dade Transit Agency brass. Robinson further alleged this was part of an exchange for dropping that $100-million grievance against the county for contracting out work privately instead of getting it done by union workers in-house. The county Inspector General's Office currently is reviewing Robinson's claims.

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's determination and monumental will may be rooted in his rural beginnings. He was born in 1954 in the small town of Leesburg, Georgia, and was forced to compete for attention in a family of fourteen brothers and sisters. He still recalls his first day of school. “The teacher gave me the worst ass-whoopin' because I couldn't read,” he declared. “I had welts all over my arms, and they had to put balm on them, but after that I learned. I haven't stopped reading since.” When he was still a child, his parents died within a year of each other. He went to live with older brothers and sisters in Miami, settling in the Brownsville section of town. From an early age, he exhibited three dominant traits: He was bright, eager to have a good time, and prone to making unabashedly frank declarations. It is a combination that continued through adulthood.

Despite his bookish nature, Robinson suffered from a lack of discipline and focus during his late teens and early twenties, and he never went to college. After serving two and a half years in the U.S. Navy, he briefly studied commercial advertising in Los Angeles and Miami. But those efforts were doomed: He was too easily distracted by the nightlife of both cities. Not until years later did his homespun passion for policy develop in what might seem like the unlikely environs of the county transit agency.

Nine years ago he realized he'd better learn his way around MDTA rules and regulations. At that time MDTA had a policy of giving watches to employees who had excellent driving records. After Robinson was involved in his first accident, he noticed a conflict between a memo issued to drivers and the policy as written in the manual. While the memo outlined disciplinary action for preventable accidents during twelve-month periods, the policy manual spoke of preventable accidents in a current year. Based on the memo, Robinson wouldn't get the watch. But if he went by the book, so to speak, he was entitled to it. When Robinson didn't get his watch, he appealed to the union and finally to the National Safety Committee in Washington. He received the timepiece after a two-year fight.

“All that for a $30 watch,” he chuckled. But for the bus driver, it wasn't the watch that mattered; it was the pursuit of it. By pressing the issue, he learned he could harness power, using his knowledge of the regulations. Winning a cheap watch was one thing; knowing you could learn how to protect the status of your personnel record was a different matter. “Now, when it comes to my record, I guard it tooth and nail. Knowledge is job security.”

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