Loud, Proud, and Out of Work

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.

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!”

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

“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.

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.

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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