Former president of Detroit bus driver union dies of COVID-19

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is mourning a retired union leader and "tireless advocate" for the safety of Detroit's bus drivers who was lost Sunday to COVID-19.

Fred Westbrook Jr. last year finished a three-decade career with the Detroit Department of Transportation, capped by a six-year stint as president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, representing the city's bus drivers. 

Fred Westbrook Jr.

Westbrook dedicated over 20 years to union work, climbing the ranks before eventually becoming president. He worked for Detroit's transportation department for 33 years. 

"He was a great fighter and, even in retirement, still was a part of the union movement," said Glenn Tolbert, current president of ATU Local 26. "We lost a great soldier."

Tolbert, who continues to recover from his own battle with the deadly respiratory virus, said Westbrook, a longtime friend and colleague, had been doing better before he "took a turn for the worse." 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan paid tribute Sunday to Westbrook, calling him a great partner in reforms made in recent years for the city's transportation department. 

"More than any other issue, Fred was a tireless advocate for the safety of his members and championed many of the steps we took to improve safety, such as establishing a dedicated transit police force and installing video cameras on all of our buses," Duggan said. "If you've noticed the improvements DDOT has made over the last several years, Fred was right there at the heart of making them happen. He leaves a great legacy and will be deeply missed."

Westbrook joined with Duggan in recent years as DDOT rolled out expanded routes and service hours. He also advocated for additional protections to curb instances of verbal and physical assaults on buses among riders and drivers. In 2015, the city installed cameras on buses and at the Rosa Parks Transit Center. The Transit Police force began its presence on the buses the year prior. 

Former Detroiter Ryan Pigrom first interacted with Westbrook when he was a 14-year-old kid catching Westbrook's bus on the Grand River line to get to his grandmother's house downtown. Westbrook's courtesy and professionalism stood out, he said. 

"That really had a profound impact on me as a young man. I never forgot that," said Pigrom, now 45.

Pigrom said he purposely walked an extra two and a half miles just to be on the bus he knew Westbrook would be driving. 

"I'm glad that I did. It was good times," he said. "It's just sad that a great man had to go."

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones called Westbrook a "strong voice" for the people of Detroit and the bus drivers. He also spent time serving as the ATU's Black Caucus president, according to the union. 

With 10,750 confirmed cases as of Monday, Detroit has been among the hardest hit by the virus. Overall, 1,324 residents have died, according to Detroit's Health Department. 

Jones, who also had fallen ill to the virus, urged the public to stay vigilant with social distancing, wearing masks and hand washing. 

"I know this is a hard time for us all but we have lost too many friends, family members and pillars of our communities," Jones said in a Sunday Facebook post. "We owe it to their legacies to be responsible and to prevent these tragedies in the future."

In a Facebook post to union members announcing his retirement last spring, Westbrook said he intended to spend more time with family. 

"Keep me in your prayers as I pray for my Local 26 Family," he wrote.

Tolbert said Westbrook was an intelligent and hard-working "good guy" who always "spoke his mind."

The pair last spoke when Westbrook came into the union office to pay his dues prior to falling ill. After he was hospitalized, Westbrook's family kept the union abreast of his progress, Tolbert said. 

"The hardest thing about this coronavirus, it doesn't allow you to say goodbye," he said.