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James Robinson, a vice president in the labor union that represents Municipal Railway drivers, was suspended from office earlier this month following the publication of an SF Weekly story that detailed his past as a pimp and his rise in local union politics. Robinson was suspended by the executive board of the Transport Workers Union, Local 250-A, on charges of sexual harassment and "conduct unbecoming a union officer." The union will decide later this week whether to permanently remove Robinson from his union post. He has denied the charges and plans to petition the TWU's international leadership to intervene on his behalf.
Robinson remains an employee of Muni and may return to his previous job as a bus driver while suspended from his union post; currently, he's off work on a health-related leave.
Robinson's suspension stems from comments he made for a recent SF Weeklystory, "Muni's Mack Daddy" (June 4), and from portions of his recently published, graphic pimp memoir, The Gospel of the Game. Internal union documents obtained by SF Weeklyand confirmed by sources within Woods Division (the Potrero Hill Muni yard where Robinson was top union representative) claim that some union members found Robinson's comments and prose discriminatory and offensive toward women. Robinson also is alleged to have violated the union's rules by selling his memoir on company time.
In connection with the union's charges, Muni Executive Director Michael Burns has launched an investigation into Robinson's on-the-job conduct toward women. Phone calls to Burns and to union officers seeking comment on the suspension were not returned.
Robinson did not hide his pimp past from Muni or his constituents. In fact, an Examiner article about his history and then-unpublished pimp memoir preceded his bid last December to be chosen as Woods Division union chairman and vice president of the union local; he won the election nonetheless, and some observers believed the notoriety may have helped, rather than hurt, his candidacy, which challenged established local leadership.
Robinson's memoir is packed with steamy, violent, and graphic depictions of sex. After The Gospel of the Game was published late last May, Robinson hung a homemade sign on the wall of his office advertising that it was on sale for $15. In interviews with SF Weekly, Robinson spoke openly on topics most politicians and union officials steer clear of, including how, as an elected official, he does the same things he did when he was pimping; that is, in both cases, he's been "making deals" and "taking care of people." Robinson also bragged about turning women out as whores by tapping into their innate desire to do perverse things. In addition, he vowed, in a remarkably impolitic way, to seek the local presidency one day.
But one week after the article appeared, a petition began circulating around Woods Division demanding Robinson's removal from union office. A flurry of memos crisscrossed Muni and union offices, lambasting Robinson and plotting his removal. In one such memo, addressed to Local 250-A membership, local President Bill Sisk wrote that "it is shocking that a union official would be accused of the kind of degrading and offensive conduct reported by the SF Weekly" and he assured members the union was "ferreting out any incidents of sexual harassment or similar unlawful conduct."
Muni Executive Director Burns, in a letter addressed to all Woods Division employees, provided the phone number of Muni's Equal Employment Opportunity Unit and suggested that anyone harassed by Robinson use it. In a separate letter to Sisk, Burns noted, "I reiterate that it is the union's responsibility to deal with Robinson's conduct ... and again urge you to take immediate action."
"I know there have been a lot of general complaints," Muni spokesperson Maggie Lynch said. "We're looking into it to see if there are specific issues."
The union charges leveled against Robinson are twofold: He has been accused of selling, on company time, a book that many would deem pornographic; and, the union claims, he sexually harassed members of his shop by making offensive comments in the book and in SF Weekly.
On the first count, Robinson says he didn't consider the book to be pornographic, and he never received any training from Muni on what constitutes sexual harassment. Until he was charged by the union, he says, he had viewed his book-selling at work to be no different than co-workers' selling of "cookie dough or raffle tickets." Robinson says that he received no verbal or written warning to stop selling the book before he was suspended by the union.
Robinson is adamant in proclaiming his innocence in regard to sexual harassment. "You can't remove someone from their position because of a book, or their past," says Robinson. "Those are my First Amendment rights to free speech and expression." His comments about whores, pimping, snorting coke with Colombian drug lords, and other seedy activities dealt with his past and should be viewed in that context, Robinson says.
On June 10 -- six days after the article appeared, but before his suspension -- Robinson attempted to soothe the negative backlash by calling a meeting to address workers at Woods Division. According to both Robinson and his stepbrother and Woods co-worker, Leon Burleson, who attended the meeting, two female Woods employees said they'd been humiliated by the Weeklyarticle on Robinson.