[R-G] Muslim Workers Demand Time for Prayer at Meatpacking Plants
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Sun Oct 26 14:36:07 MDT 2008
Muslim Workers Demand Time for Prayer at Meatpacking Plants
— Tiffany Ten Eyck
Muslim workers at meatpacking plants owned by JBS Swift in Colorado
and Nebraska walked out in September to demand time for prayer and
dinner during their holy month of Ramadan. When the company agreed,
other workers, largely Latino immigrants, led counter-protests,
complaining that the Muslims were being favored.
A month earlier, Tyson chicken processing workers in Shelbyville,
Tennessee, represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store
Union (RWDSU), signed a contract that made Eid al-Fitr, the day
marking the end of Ramadan, a paid holiday they could take instead of
Labor Day. The contract triggered community outrage, but the union
said it made sense for the hundreds of Muslim workers.
Eventually, the company added a personal day for all workers and put
Labor Day back in the contract.
The meatpacking industry has long had a diverse workforce, but recent
events have brought more Muslim workers into the plants, said Jill
Cashen of the United Food and Commercial Workers. As Immigration and
Customs Enforcement (ICE) has raided meatpacking plants and deported
Latino workers, employers have replaced them with workers from
Somalia, who have protected refugee status and thus aren't subject to
According to a 2008 Council on American-Islamic Relations report,
though, discrimination against Muslims in all workplaces increased by
18 percent in 2007.
Civil rights law protects workers' requests for accommodation to their
religious practices if such adjustments can be made without "undue
hardship" to the employer. But disagreements are inevitable as to what
"hardships" are and which are "undue," making it necessary for unions
to push members' rights in bargaining and the grievance procedure.
Christian workers rarely have to fight for accommodation as Christmas
is a public holiday—a paid holiday in any union contract—and Sunday is
not a work day in many workplaces.
Unions must take into account the rights of other workers who are
understandably not keen on taking on additional hardships themselves.
A further complicating factor is religious prejudice against Muslims
and non-English-speaking African immigrants.
"We're seeing a trend in unions to enforce civil rights laws and
recognize the needs of the workforce as it's changing," said Renaye
Manley, organizing director for Interfaith Worker Justice, an
organization that promotes workers' rights in the faith community.
But accommodating one group's needs can both disrupt production and
stoke resentment, as it did at Swift's Nebraska plant. The union and
management met with Somali workers and agreed to accommodate a prayer
time at sunset by moving a scheduled break up 15 minutes.
Other workers walked out the next day. Workers told local press that
the company's action was unfair and that the change would shorten
everyone's hours and pay, a charge denied by the union. Others said
they simply didn't want to see the accommodations made.
After two days of tension and work stoppages at the facility, the
company reversed its decision on break time. Somali workers and others
who walked out in protest were fired. UFCW Local 22 is filing a
grievance and encouraging fired workers to come back and talk to union
At the Colorado Swift plant, second shift workers asked for an evening
break to be moved earlier than the usual 9 p.m., in order to allow
Muslim workers who fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan to eat.
The company fired more than 100 Muslim workers after they walked out.
"A lot of the initial conflict comes from lack of understanding of the
religious practices," said Manley. "They may not understand why people
think it's important to fight for."
However, the UFCW said tensions at Swift had been building and weren't
just about workers' misunderstanding of Ramadan traditions. Cashen
said workers leaving the moving line to pray caused workload problems
and safety concerns for others.
"If your co-worker left without management recognizing this person is
leaving, it's not fair and it's not safe," said Cashen.
HOW TO ACCOMMODATE
Muslims have been part of the auto workforce for decades, where
accommodations are made informally. The only contractual religious
holidays are Good Friday and Christmas, but one UAW officer said
Muslim workers with good attendance are able to take religious
holidays off, with union backing if they face problems from
RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum supported the meatpackers' fight for
Muslim holidays, saying it was the "will of the workers" and that it's
the union's role to fight for these demands.
Appelbaum is also president of the Jewish Labor Committee, which
promotes communication between the labor movement and the Jewish
community. Struggles for Saturday Sabbath and other Jewish holidays
continue in some workplaces, he said.
Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress said unions' support of
seniority rights can sometimes conflict with the vacation requests of
the faithful, but contracts or informal provisions that allow workers
to swap shifts can help to both preserve seniority structures and
Dawud Walid of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic
Relations said the solution is simple. "Muslims having a short time to
pray—why does that hurt anybody?" he asked. "People take smoke breaks;
why can't we have prayer breaks?" Of course, nonsmokers' resentment of
smokers' extra time off the job is also a low-level gripe in some
Manley said that Interfaith Worker Justice is preparing materials for
unions on Islamic traditions, while Cashen said she'd encourage
workers of minority faiths "to work with the union to find the best
A bill called the Workplace Religious Freedom Act was introduced in
Congress in 2007 but its prospects are not strong.
October 16, 2008
A Somali Influx Unsettles Latino Meatpackers
By KIRK SEMPLE
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Like many workers at the meatpacking plant here,
Raul A. Garcia, a Mexican-American, has watched with some discomfort
as hundreds of Somali immigrants have moved to town in the past couple
of years, many of them to fill jobs once held by Latino workers taken
away in immigration raids.
Mr. Garcia has been particularly troubled by the Somalis' demand that
they be allowed special breaks for prayers that are obligatory for
devout Muslims. The breaks, he said, would inconvenience everyone
"The Latino is very humble," said Mr. Garcia, 73, who has worked at
the plant, owned by JBS U.S.A. Inc., since 1994. "But they are
arrogant," he said of the Somali workers. "They act like the United
States owes them."
Mr. Garcia was among more than 1,000 Latino and other workers who
protested a decision last month by the plant's management to cut their
work day — and their pay — by 15 minutes to give scores of Somali
workers time for evening prayers.
After several days of strikes and disruptions, the plant's management
abandoned the plan.
But the dispute peeled back a layer of civility in this southern
Nebraska city of 47,000, revealing slow-burning racial and ethnic
tensions that have been an unexpected aftermath of the enforcement
raids at workplaces by federal immigration authorities.
Grand Island is among a half dozen or so cities where discord has
arisen with the arrival of Somali workers, many of whom were recruited
by employers from elsewhere in the United States after immigration
raids sharply reduced their Latino work forces.
The Somalis are by and large in this country legally as political
refugees and therefore are not singled out by immigration authorities.
In some of these places, including Grand Island, this newest wave of
immigrant workers has had the effect of unifying the other ethnic
populations against the Somalis and has also diverted some of the
longstanding hostility toward Latino immigrants among some native-born
"Every wave of immigrants has had to struggle to get assimilated,"
said Margaret Hornady, the mayor of Grand Island and a longtime
resident of Nebraska. "Right now, it's so volatile."
The federal immigration crackdown has hit meat- and poultry-packing
plants particularly hard, with more than 2,000 immigrant workers in at
least nine places detained since 2006 in major raids, most on
Struggling to fill the grueling low-wage jobs that attract few
American workers, the plants have placed advertisements in immigrant
newspapers and circulated fliers in immigrant neighborhoods.
Some companies, like Swift & Company, which owned the plant in Grand
Island until being bought up by the Brazilian conglomerate JBS last
year, have made a particular pitch for Somalis because of their legal
status. Tens of thousands of Somali refugees fleeing civil war have
settled in the United States since the 1990s, with the largest
concentration in Minnesota.
But the companies are learning that in trying to solve one problem
they have created another.
Early last month, about 220 Somali Muslims walked off the job at a JBS
meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., saying the company had prevented
them from observing their prayer schedule. (More than 100 of the
workers were later fired.)
Days later, a poultry company in Minnesota agreed to allow Muslim
workers prayer breaks and the right to refuse handling pork products,
settling a lawsuit filed by nine Somali workers.
In August, the management of a Tyson chicken plant in Shelbyville,
Tenn., designated a Muslim holy day as a paid holiday, acceding to a
demand by Somali workers. The plant had originally agreed to
substitute the Muslim holy day for Labor Day, but reinstated Labor Day
after a barrage of criticism from non-Muslims.
In some workplaces, newly arrived Somali Muslims have not protested
their working conditions. That has been the case at Agriprocessors, a
meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. About 150 Somali Muslims have
found jobs there, most of them recruited by a staffing company after
the plant lost about half its work force in an immigration raid in
Jack Shandley, a senior vice president for JBS U.S.A., said in an
e-mail message that "integrating persons of diverse backgrounds
regularly presents new and different issues."
"Religious accommodation is only one workplace diversity issue that
has been addressed," Mr. Shandley said.
Nationwide, employment discrimination complaints by Muslim workers
have more than doubled in the past decade, to 607 in the 2007 fiscal
year, from 285 in the 1998 fiscal year, according to the federal Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission, which has sent representatives to
Grand Island to interview Somali workers.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employers to discriminate based
on religion and says that employers must "reasonably accommodate"
religious practices. But the act offers some exceptions, including
instances when adjustments would cause "undue hardship" on the
company's business interests.
The new tensions here extend well beyond the walls of the plant.
Scratch beneath Grand Island's surface and there is resentment,
discomfort and mistrust everywhere, some residents say — between the
white community and the various immigrant communities; between the
older immigrant communities, like the Latinos, and the newer ones,
namely the Somalis and the Sudanese, another refugee community that
has grown here in recent years; and between the Somalis, who are
largely Muslim, and the Sudanese, who are largely Christian.
In dozens of interviews here, white, Latino and other residents seemed
mostly bewildered, if not downright suspicious, of the Somalis, very
few of whom speak English.
"I kind of admire all the effort they make to follow that religion,
but sometimes you have to adapt to the workplace," said Fidencio
Sandoval, a plant worker born in Mexico who has become an American
citizen. "A new culture comes in with their demands and says, 'This is
what we want.' This is kind of new for me."
Ms. Hornady, the mayor, suggested somewhat apologetically that she had
been having difficulty adjusting to the presence of Somalis. She said
she found the sight of Somali women, many of whom wear Muslim
headdresses, or hijabs, "startling."
"I'm sorry, but after 9/11, it gives some of us a turn," she said.
Not only do the hijabs suggest female subjugation, Ms. Hornady said,
but the sight of Muslims in town made her think of Osama bin Laden and
the attacks on the United States.
"I know that that's horrible and that's prejudice," she said. "I'm
working very hard on it."
She added, "Aren't a lot of thoughtful Americans struggling with this?"
For their part, the Somalis say they feel aggrieved and not
"A lot of people look at you weird — they judge you," said Abdisamad
Jama, 22, a Somali who moved to Grand Island two years ago to work as
an interpreter at the plant and now freelances. "Or sometimes they
will say, 'Go back to your country.' "
Founded in the mid-19th century by German immigrants, Grand Island
gradually became more diverse in the mid- and late-20th century with
the arrival of Latino workers, mainly Mexicans.
The Latinos came at first to work in the agricultural fields; later
arrivals found employment in the meatpacking plant. Refugees from Laos
and, in the past few years, Sudan followed, and many of them also
found work in the plant, which is now the city's largest employer,
with about 2,700 workers.
In December 2006, in an event that would deeply affect the city and
alter its uneasy balance of ethnicities, immigration authorities
raided the plant and took away more than 200 illegal Latino workers.
Another 200 or so workers quit soon afterward.
The raid was one of six sweeps by federal agents at plants owned by
Swift, gutting the company of about 1,200 workers in one day and
forcing the plants to slow their operations.
Many of the Somalis who eventually arrived to fill those jobs were
practicing Muslims and their faith obliges them to pray at five fixed
times every day. In Grand Island, the workers would grab prayer time
whenever they could, during scheduled rest periods or on restroom
breaks. But during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast in daylight
hours and break their fast in a ritualistic ceremony at sundown. A
more formal accommodation of their needs was necessary, the Somali
Last year, the Somalis here demanded time off for the Ramadan
ceremony. The company refused, saying it could not afford to let so
many workers step away from the production line at one time. Dozens of
Somalis quit, though they eventually returned to work.
The situation repeated itself last month. Dennis Sydow, the plant's
vice president and general manager, said a delegation of Somali
workers approached him on Sept. 10 about allowing them to take their
dinner break at 7:30 p.m., near sundown, rather than at the normal
time of 8 to 8:30.
Mr. Sydow rejected the request, saying the production line would slow
to a crawl and the Somalis' co-workers would unfairly have to take up
The Somalis said their co-workers did not offer a lot of support.
"Latinos were sometimes saying, 'Don't pray, don't pray,' " said
Abdifatah Warsame, 21.
After the Somalis went out on strike on Sept. 15, the plant's
management and the union brokered a deal the next day that would have
shifted the dinner break to 7:45 p.m., close enough to sundown to
satisfy the Somalis. Because of the plant's complex scheduling rules,
the new dinner break would have also required an earlier end to the
shift, potentially cutting the work day by 15 minutes.
Word of the accord spread quickly throughout the non-Somali work
force, though the reports were infected with false rumors of pay
raises for the Somalis and more severe cuts in the work day for
In a counterprotest on Sept. 17, more than 1,000 Latino and Sudanese
workers lined up alongside white workers in opposition to the
concessions to the Somalis.
"We had complaints from the whites, Hispanics and Sudanese," said
Abdalla Omar, 26, one of the Somali strikers.
The union and the plant management backed down, reverting to the
original dinner schedule. More than 70 Somalis, including Mr. Omar and
Mr. Warsame, stormed out of the plant and did not return; they either
quit or were fired.
Since then, Ramadan has ended and work has returned to normal at the
plant, but most everyone — management, the union and the employees —
says the root causes of the disturbances have not been fully
addressed. A sizeable Somali contingent remains employed at the
factory — Somali leaders say the number is about 100; the union puts
the figure at more than 300, making similar disruptions possible next
"Right now, this is a real kindling box," said Daniel O. Hoppes,
president of the local chapter of the union, the United Food and
Xawa Ahmed, 48, a Somali, moved to Grand Island from Minnesota last
month to help organize the Somali community. A big part of her work,
Ms. Ahmed said, will be to help demystify the Somalis who remain.
"We're trying to make people understand why we do these things, why we
practice this religion, why we live in America," she said. "There's a
lot of misunderstanding."
August 6, 2008
Muslim Holiday at Tyson Plant Creates Furor
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
The union that represents workers at a Tyson Foods poultry plant in
Tennessee has negotiated a contract that substitutes a Muslim holiday
for Labor Day as one of the eight paid holidays at the plant.
The provision, which was proposed by the Retail, Wholesale and
Department Store Union, has delighted the plant's Somali workers, who
account for hundreds of its 1,200 employees. But it has infuriated
many outsiders, leading some to denounce Tyson and the union alike.
"You are a union that is proud of achieving a Muslim holiday and
prayer room?" one person wrote the union. "A union in the U.S.A., a
country based on Christianity. You call yourselves Americans? Have you
Another wrote: "You had no right to drop Labor Day. Muslim employees
must integrate Labor Day into THEIR lives if they are going to live in
Stung by the criticism, Stuart Appelbaum, the union's president, said
the decision was fully consistent with the spirit of Labor Day.
"We in the labor movement have always understood that unions are only
strong when we work to protect the dignity of all faiths, and that
includes Muslims," said Mr. Appelbaum, who also serves as president of
the Jewish Labor Committee.
"What we negotiated was the will of the workers," said Mr. Appelbaum,
who added that his was the first union to negotiate a paid day off for
a Muslim holiday and that he was sure Tyson would not be the last
employer to agree.
The plant affected is in the town of Shelbyville, some 40 miles south
of Nashville. Under a five-year contract there, Id al-Fitr, which
marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, is now
one of the plant's eight paid holidays.
Union officials said the two Somali immigrants on the union's
eight-member bargaining committee had been eager to make Id al-Fitr
(pronounced eed-al-FIT-tr) a paid holiday. The union agreed to do so
at the expense of Labor Day in part because it did not want to trade
Christmas, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day or other existing paid
holidays, and in part because Tyson has usually required the plant's
employees to work on Labor Day anyway. (Employees received a holiday
premium for working that day.)
"We had worked 23 Labor Days in a row; it wasn't like it was a day to
spend with our family," said Randy Hadley, a union representative who
helped negotiate the contract.
Mr. Hadley said both management and union were surprised when nearly
all the Somali workers — Tyson puts their number at 250, the union at
nearly 400 — did not work on Id al-Fitr last year. They were not paid,
but the plant almost had to close that day, said Mr. Hadley, adding
that management was "elated" by the proposal to make Id al-Fitr a
The contract was negotiated last year and approved by workers in
November. But the holiday provision largely escaped public notice
until a local newspaper published an article about it last week. Many
anti-immigrant bloggers and conservative commentators have since
berated Tyson, urging a boycott.
Thrown on the defensive, the company issued a statement Monday saying:
"Contrary to recent reports, Labor Day is still a holiday at Tyson
Foods. The issue concerns only the plant at Shelbyville."
"This is not a religious accommodation," the statement added. "Rather,
it is a union-initiated contract demand."
Libby Lawson, a Tyson spokeswoman, noted that the plant had three
Christian chaplains, and prayer rooms for Muslims and Christians
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