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Muslim Meatpackers Demand Time for Ramadan; Backlash Follows

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 ICE harassment.

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

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.

WHOSE RIGHTS?

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 reps.

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 management.

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 accommodate observers.

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 workplaces.

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 solution."

A bill called the Workplace Religious Freedom Act was introduced in Congress in 2007 but its prospects are not strong.

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