Apr 9, 2008

Jeep Worker in the Fight of His Life

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Media reports this week highlighted the hiring of Toledo Police officers at the Toledo North Jeep plant in light of alleged threats made by a former employee, William Birr. In the past few days I have had the opportunity to read the police reports and related documents in the case, yet the picture painted in these reports and in the media seems at odds with the mild-mannered Birr.

Charged with numerous felonies, Birr faces up to five years in prison if convicted of aggravated menacing and inducing panic.

I had breakfast with Birr once, but under the advice of his attorney he is not speaking to the media at this time, and neither - I should add - are company officials or representatives of the prosecutor's office, citing ongoing criminal and civil cases. I can say that Bill Birr seems nothing like the AK-47-wielding stalker depicted in the interview statements, and I found him to soft-spoken and well-balanced. Moreover, I find the turn of events that brought Birr into the media spotlight to be a shocking abuse of the justice system, as well as a disturbing example of the power of large corporations to destroy the lives of individuals.

Birr was initially fired in October 2006 for leaving the plant without a supervisor's permission. He had been forced at the last minute to work four hours of overtime, which interfered with his ability to keep a followup appointment with his eye surgeon. The union contract only requires employees to work one hour of overtime, which Birr worked, but when he realized he was in danger of missing the appointment, he left the building without the appropriate authorization, and the company fired him five days later, even though he returned to finish his shift after the doctor's appointment.

Thus began a bizarre tale in the life of Bill Birr, who not only lost his job for leaving the plant, but faces the frightening prospect of five years in prison.

In the past few days I spoke with a number of Jeep employees who are familiar with the case and who personally know Birr. They describe a man who was abandoned by his union during the arbitration process, targeted by his employer for dismissal, and ultimately "railroaded" into the legal system unjustly.

"It is no secret that the company, Chrysler, wants to get rid of higher paid employees, especially in skilled trades - and Bill is an electrician," said George Windau, a millwright at Toledo North. "The company wants to get rid of higher paid workers and replace them with new-hires with half the age and half the wage. And union guys who want to be bosses after their term of office expires want to help the company get rid of workers instead of paying a buyout to each worker they want to get rid of."

Windau referenced publicized efforts by Chrysler to offer buyout packages to high seniority employees that range from $70,000 to $100,000. Windau pointed out that - despite the work infraction - Birr was still able to collect unemployment after his discharge.

"This whole demonization of Bill Birr is a distraction to make people look away from the fact that Bill was fired unjustly," he said. "Don't believe me? Just look at the decision that the State of Ohio gave toward this idea that Bill was fired unjustly. The State of Ohio awarded Bill Birr his unemployment benefits and the State of Ohio does not give unemployment benefits to workers who are fired for good cause."

Jeep workers with whom I spoke said that the company normally just docks the pay of employees who leave the building, or - in extreme cases - issues a three-day suspension. The initial police report contained a request by the company to charge Birr with theft of company funds, but the prosecutor's office declined to file this charge.

The alleged threats occurred almost a year after Birr was fired, and police reports indicate that they purportedly occurred during telephone calls between the company, union officials, and Birr.

However, police reports also noted that the investigating lieutenant "pink-slipped" Birr as a threat to public safety, and the former Jeep worker found himself involuntarily committed to a 28-day stay in a state mental hospital. Moreover, while being assessed by state psychiatrists, Toledo police took the unusual step of placing a tracking device in Birr's vehicle, telling Birr's wife that they just wanted to check the vehicle for "hidden compartments" in which Birr might hide a weapon.

Windau said that he was having lunch with Birr in December at a Manhattan Boulevard diner when they received a surprise visitor.

"All of a sudden this TPD sergeant walks in and stands over our table, made a little small talk, and then left," he recalled. "It was only after I found out that they were tracking Bill's every move that I understood they thought he was coming to the plant, since the diner is a few miles from Toledo North. The guy can't even eat a meal in a restaurant without getting harassed."

A number of workers at Toledo North believe that the company and union are working together to target high-wage union members for dismissal. Keith Cameron, a team leader in production at the plant, said that it is "common knowledge" that long term employees face harassment.

"They want the high-dollar people out, and they try to set people up by getting them mad and then firing them for insubordination," he said. "All I can say is this: watch your back, and do not get mad at a supervisor or a union steward."

Cameron said that at a recent team leader meeting, union and company officials told an unusual story about Birr.

"They said that the Toledo Police caught Bill Birr in the parking lot with weapons, and that he was arrested and in custody," he recalled.

Puzzled, Cameron and another employee called Birr at home, who reassured them that he was at home watching Star Trek reruns. Windau believes that the incident is part of a coordinated campaign to smear Birr.

"Now, on top of firing Bill unjustly, Jeep management and his wonderful union brothers want Bill to go to jail for five years under a charge of creating a public panic (causing more than $100,000 damage) and the list of Toledo cops on Jeep's payroll to the tune of $132,000 in expenses is the basis of this felony charge of 'creating a public panic,'" he said. "But the cops don't work for Jeep anymore. Must not be much of a public panic if Bill Birr is still walking around, and nobody is protecting the vulnerable workers at Jeep who will have to face Bill Birr and his invisible machine gun without Toledo cops on the factory site."

Windau also criticized media reports of the alleged threats.

"There is so much more to this story, but Bill Birr can't talk about it. His attorney forbids Bill to talk to the news media. And why should Bill want to talk to the media anyway after what "My Fox" Channel 36 did to him on Monday?" he asked, describing the news coverage as a 'perp walk.' "Fox equated Bill Birr with [2005 Jeep shooter] Myles Myers, accusing Bill of being a homicidal maniac, which isn't true, and which nobody at Jeep believes. Only the uninformed would believe this incredible lie about a Marine Corps veteran, a devout Christian, and a devoted husband and family man. Bill's only crime is that he wants justice and he won't go away."

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is scary: if Birr is dangerous, then why is he walking the street with no police to protect Jeep??? An it's scary if he is being screwed by the company so badly!!

Anonymous said...

I used to work at KJ before I retired, and the bosses at Jeep are ruthless. I didn't know Bill Birr well, but none of this would surpise me. And the UAW is the best union money can buy!

Anonymous said...

Why would the Jeep spend so much money if they weren't legitimately afraid of this nut?

Anonymous said...

Some untruths to this story;The company can't force overtime at the last minute,they must give 4 hours notice before the overtime starts and the most overtime they can force is 2 hours not 1 hour.When they tell you about the overtime you can tell your boss you have an appointment,they can't force you to stay.THE PLANT ISN'T A PRISON
Chrysler and Toledo UAW Local 12 don't have the same contract language as other plants.They can't hire new workers at half the wages at Toledo Jeep Assembly Complex.If Mr Birr was fired he would of been replaced by a laid off employee at the same wages.
I have worked at Toledo Jeep Assembly Complex for 30 years and never have felt that the company or the bosses are out to get me fired.Sure you have some bosses that are idiots,but if you do your job and don't cause trouble you don't have anything to worry about.

historymike said...

A couple of thoughts:

1. Anonymous #1: This is a strange dilemma, isn't it? If Bill Birr is such a ticking time bomb, why did Chrysler stop the extra security and remove the tracking device? I am as puzzled as you.

2. Anonymous #2: I have heard similar stories for years about Jeep management. Maybe I am just listening to cranks, but maybe where there is smoke, there is also fire.

3. Anonymous #3: To you and me, $132,000 sounds like a lot of money. To the owners of a factory with a weekly payroll measured in the millions of dollars, spending $8,000 a week for TPD is a drop in the bucket.

4. Anonymous #4: Thanks for the clarifications and the info on the contract language. Did you know Bill Birr?

historymike said...

To the emailer who attacked this story and my journalistic integrity:

1. For the record, at no point did I question the factual basis of the FOX 36 story. It closely followed the facts as spelled out in the police reports and in the indictments. Also, I think that the FOX reporter in question did a good job at ferreting out this story, which has remained hidden for many months.

2. If you have a problem with what workers at Jeep told me, take it up with them. I record the quotes, and work them into the story as I see it. I would use the metaphor about not shooting the messenger, but I suspect that this might be misinterpreted as promoting violence.

:-{

historymike said...

To the emailer who insisted I print his defense of Local 12:

1. You are more than welcome to leave your coments here. I don't have the time to be your transcriptionist.

2. Otherwise, get your own goddamn blog.

kooz said...

Why is everyone in the know signing on as anonymous? Afraid of being Jimmy Hoffa(ed)?

historymike said...

Tsk, tsk, Kooz - don't you know that the American labor movement and corporate America have evolved past such dark days, and that we have moved to an era of bright and happy workplaces?

Sheesh - you are awfully skeptical. Why, since I drank the glass of Kool-Aid that the nice man handed me an hour ago, I feel positively warm-hearted about the conditions of the worker-union-management systems in this great nation.

Carty Finkbeiner said...

ONLY ONE MAN CAN BE A CRAZY SOB IN TOLEDO, AND THAT IS ME, YOUR MAYOR.

THAT IS ALL!

Mad Jack said...

Things just get a little stranger every day. I hope that everything turns out well for Mr. Birr, but the money is against it.

Anonymous said...

You're supposed to be a journalist? You are everything a journalist is not supposed to be: biased, one-sided, and full of lies! You make me sick!

LTLOP said...

And you are a jew lover too!ANd a Commie and a catholic and a liberal and a closet conservative and an animal lover and _______and________. (fill in the blanks as necessary)

Sorry, had to thow those in there before all the others in the tin-foil hat brigade show up!
Is there no group that you don't love Mike?

historymike said...

Obnoxious Anonymous:

1. I may have biases, but so does every human being. Still, I tell the truth and report what I hear. You just don't like that I quoted people who do not share your view, but that's your problem, not mine.

2. Yes, I call myself a journalist, as well as a historian (I am finishing my PhD in history). As a freelance journalist, I write about what interests me, as opposed to stories that can make me the most money. I could make ten times as much cash writing about chicken dinners held by politicians, or rehashing corporate press releases, but I would go batty.

3. Among the stories I find most intriguing are people who face hard times, or people on the margins of society. I find much more fulfilling the writing of articles that capture the voices of the voiceless than I do more conventional journalism. I especially like the blog format, since a blog allows me near-complete freedom from outside interference.

4. If my writing really makes you sick, then don't visit my blog. I have better things to do than to respond to anonymous twits.

historymike said...

LTLOP:

Heh. As you sardonically point out, casual visitors to this site often assume that I fit into neat categories of whatever group they despise.

About the only groups I have yet to be asociated with by drive-by commenters are neo-Nazis and John Birchers.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said, "some untruths to this story."
As a jeep worker:
I agree the company can't force 4 hours overtime.
I disagree company does have incentive to force older employees out by replacing with new hires at lower starting wages. New employees will probably never see retirement with current benefits. I have heard of 30 year employees being forced out for not being able to keep up with added job requirements. If no incentive why would Chrysler offer current round of buy-outs?
Anonymous said,"Some bosses are idiots."
I agree, but not some, many are lacking in people skills. Here is where the UAW has dropped the ball in not confronting these Overlords . There is a disconnect between workers and Union/Management. We had in 2005 the Myles Myers incident which I believe was covered up to protect the Toledo Jeep plant reputation. No real changes were implemented in management relations and now have reared it's ugly head to jeopardize the many hard working workers livelihoods.
This is NOT currently the only issue that is under investigation at Jeep. From what I hear the Attorney General is looking at sexual predation by management and union officials perpetrated against women workers and women managers. So you see these conditions are being allowed by senior management all the way to the top.

George Windau said...

After witnessing the horror of a murder-suicide at Jeep in 2005, and believe me there is so much more to the story of Myles Myers than any media outlet has covered, I find this preocupation with Bill Birr, at least until the sum of $100,000++ was reached, completely phoney and dishonest.

Channel 36 did not even bother to seek an opinion, statement or sound byte from Bill, his family members, or even his attorney of record. Where is this 'fair and balanced' myth that FOX NEWs projects when only the accusations are covered and the denials are omitted.

Certainly if Jeep management employed Toledo cops to protect Jeep workers from homicidal mad men that must be applauded. But tell me where "protection" fits into the scenario when workers are told that Bill Birr was arrested in the Jeep parking lot with automatic weapons and is sitting in custody down town....when it is all a lie, as Bill Birr is actually sitting home watching Star Trek.

How is this any type of protection? How are Jeep workers being protected when police presence stops on April Fools Day, but the bad guys are still walking around free as a bird.

It's all fake, phoney and it stinks, just like FOX NEWS coverage of Bill Birr on April 7th. Consider this possibility: Bill Birr never threatend anyone so there was never any need for TPD cops on his account. Now that's a story, Skippy. Somebody tell FOX 36 to buy a clue.

Anonymous said...

Sorry late on this game but this doesn't make sense to me. His cousin has been high up in our union forever. If he's not helping him maybe he is a weirdo.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
"Sorry late on this game but this doesn't make sense to me. His cousin has been high up in our union forever. If he's not helping him maybe he is a weirdo."

His cousin doesn't help anyone unless he/she is an alcoholic or drug abuser. He refuses to do even the basics unless threatened by the NLRB. But he's sure to cash those inflated "do-nothing" company checks!

Anonymous said...

Industrial Relations Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa
2425 Campus Road, Sinclair 301 • Honolulu, HI 96822
Telephone: (808) 956-8132 • Facsimile: (808) 956-3609 • Email:
uh...@hawaii.edu • Website: www.manoa.hawaii.edu/irc
COURT FINDS UNION LIABLE FOR STEWARD’S HARASSMENT OF FEMALE EMPLOYEE
AS WELL AS BREACH OF DUTY OF FAIR REPRESENTATION
A United Auto Workers (UAW) local is liable for sexual harassment
under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and
Ohio law as well as breach of its duty of fair representation for a
case in which a union steward harassed a female
employee he had formerly dated and arranged for the loss of her job,
the district court for the Northern District of Ohio
decides.
Granting partial summary judgment for plaintiff Mee Sanders, an
employee at a Daimler Chrysler Jeep plant in
Toledo, Ohio, the court says the union is liable for the actions of
Richard Lott, a union steward who harassed Sanders and arranged for
her to lose her job temporarily after she broke off a two-year
relationship with him in March 2003. Although Sanders was approved to
return to work at Daimler Chrysler in March 2004, union
representatives inappropriately delayed her return for another six
months. Sanders’s separate sexual harassment suit against Daimler
Chrysler, in which the court denied the company’s motion for summary
judgment in November 2006, is still pending.
Sanders proved both hostile environment sexual harassment and a quid
pro quo claim, Judge David A. Katz
rules. UAW Local 12 is liable because it had “actual knowledge” of the
situation between Lott and Sanders “by virtue of the long and tortured
history of grievances and drama” but it nevertheless advised Lott to
interact with Sanders “on a normal basis” as a union steward as late
as May 2005. The court rejects the union’s defense that the “isolated
incidents” described by Sanders do not amount to a hostile work
environment. “The court views the totality of the circumstances and
considers a claim of sexual harassment not necessarily to be a result
of a particular incident or even particular isolated incidents alone,
but rather as a developing situation that results from, in this case,
harassment by a co-worker and fellow union member without adequate
protection (and even with support) from supervisors and union
officials who threatened, manipulated job placements, and displayed a
reluctance to help, resulting in a hostile work environment, “
Katz states.
Sanders also established “quid pro quo” harassment based on undisputed
evidence that Lott “requested sexual
favors in exchange for influencing her job placement” and that
Torrence Frazier, the plant’s assembly department
manager and Lott’s friend, went “conspicuously out of his way” to
prevent Sanders from returning to work in March 2004.
The union, according to the court, failed to explain how it took six
months for Sanders to be placed in a job for which she
was pre-approved. Judge Katz also cites as evidence of unlawful
harassment a union official’s suggestion to Sanders
that she reunite romantically with Lott in order to resolve her
employment situation.
Under Supreme Court precedent, a union breaches its duty of fair
representation when its conduct toward a
member is arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith. “If the union
has the sole power to invoke the higher stages of the
grievances procedure, and the employee has been prevented from
exhausting her contractual remedies by the union’s
wrongful refusal to process her grievances, the employee may bring a
cause of action for breach of the duty of fair
representation,” the court says. By showing that Lott and other union
officials had created a sexually hostile work
environment and also had conditioned her ability to work on submission
to Lott’s conduct, Sanders proved a breach of the
duty of fair representation. “The duty of fair representation includes
the duty not to discriminate on the basis of sex.
…Sexual harassment in the union context constitutes discrimination
under Title VII, which makes it discriminatory conduct
in violation of the union’s duty of fair representation.”
The court finds that because the union knew about Lott’s harassing
conduct toward Sanders but declined to
pursue the plaintiff’s grievances regarding loss of her job and the
delay in her reinstatement (and in some respects aided
Lott’s attempts to punish Sanders for ending their relationship), UAW
Local 12 breached its duty of fair representation.
The decision is available at http://op.bna.com/dlrcases.nsf/r?Open=kmgn-7bjmqq.
(Source: Sanders v. United Auto Workers Local 12, N.D. Ohio, No. 3:04-
CV-7751, January 24, 2008, as reported in BNA,
Daily Labor Report, No. 24, February 6, 2008, pp. A3-A4.)

Anonymous said...

bill birr has a scary background, check into it don't let him fool anyone and think he's a mild-mannered man!! All this can be authenticated. he held cops at bay with guns, he is a wife abuser, he has been a drug user (ask the marines), he has been in trouble federally over an incident at the airport, was fired from mazda over sexual discrimination allegations.do you think he's been the scape goat for all these things. he's one man that thinks the laws and rules don't apply to him. and the his behavior in the courtroom is exactly how he is. do i know him, yes. and i wish i didn't, he's scary. he's a ticking time bomb. no wonder the union, including his cousin, won't help him, they can't he lied from the start that's the whole problem. had he just admitted he ws wrong, things wouldn't have gone so bad!! no i won't give my name, because i'm afraid of him!!!