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."