Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Send them swiftly packing, I say.

No prayer, no work!

Talks break down between Muslims and Swift

Company Management is presented with two pages of DEMANDS and GRIEVANCES. They grovel a bit agreeing to find more interpreters and put more Somalis in management. That wasn't good enough for our Muslims friends. Oh no. The meeting grew heated and their was a walkout. Now, the employees face mass termination. If only deportation were next, but no, the Muslim workers vow to seek their day in court. Legal Jihad.

Talks between JBS Swift & Co. officials and Muslim workers seeking prayer breaks during Ramadan broke down Tuesday afternoon and turned into calls of breach of contract. The roughly 250 workers, who've been suspended since walking off the job Friday night, say they will not return to work and may take legal action. They also acknowledge they may face mass terminations.

A mid-afternoon meeting between the Muslim representatives and about 80 of the suspended workers grew heated in a downtown Greeley park when the representatives relayed information to the crowd. When workers learned the company would not allow break times for prayer, many shouted and crowded around a gazebo from which the representatives spoke. Within 30 minutes, workers split into smaller groups and milled around the park.

Complaints of on-the-job discrimination and harassment as well as non-responsive union representation marked the second straight day in which hundreds of Muslims, mostly Somalis who have been hired at Swift in the past year, gathered in the Greeley park.

Graen Isse, an African Swift worker, and several other Muslim workers met with company officials and a union representative for a few hours Tuesday, looking over a two-page list of grievances the Muslims presented. He said company officials verbally agreed to some items, such as requests for more African/Somali supervisors and improved translation for non-English speaking employees. But Isse said the requested prayer breaks -- a major issue for Muslims at all times but especially during Ramadan -- was rejected by management.

"The thing they didn't agree with was the prayer (breaks)," Isse said. "And that was the whole problem from the start." Upon hearing that news, a group of disgruntled Muslim workers clustered around Isse and said, "No prayer, no work."

When a union leader said he would assist those suspended by taking their names and Social Security numbers, his offer was ignored.

Kaise Egal, another Muslim representative, said Swift management conveyed that workers would be fired if they took unauthorized breaks. He said officials noted that the suspended workers, if they reported to work Tuesday afternoon, would be disciplined for their actions last week, and if they had another work-related disciplinary action they'd be fired. Most of the workers expected the company would fire them if they returned to work today.

An official with JBS Swift & Co. did not immediately return calls seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. On Monday, a company official said no workers had been terminated over the Friday incident.

On the matter of breaks, Egal said, "We ask a maximum of 10 minutes" for prayer per shift.

The Muslims said they thought the problem was resolved last Thursday after company officials said the workers could break at 7:30 p.m., earlier than their usual union-contract mandated breaks at about 9:30 p.m. But they said the company, without advance notice, on Friday didn't grant the 7:30 p.m. breaks and instead mobilized to keep workers on production lines. Workers nonetheless began walking out for breaks and, according to the two-page document, "management and administrative employees started harassing and collecting badges from Muslim workers that took breaks as agreed. ... Management blocked restrooms and break areas and that started massive disturbances and conflicts at the plant."

Fernando Rodriquez, who heads the United Food Commercial Workers Local 7 at Swift, the union that represents production workers, on Tuesday explained details of the collective bargaining contract with the gathered Muslims.

He said when an employee works at least eight hours and 12 minutes in a shift, the company must, in accordance with the union contract, give them three breaks -- two 15-minute spans plus a 30-minute break. "You should be covered for your prayer time," Rodriquez said.

Under that scenario, the Muslim workers' second break on the late shift would be about 7:30 p.m. when most of them end their 12-hour Ramadan daily fasts. However, workers said, they haven't been getting three breaks.

Amina Warsame, who has worked at Swift for a year, said she regularly works nine hours and gets two breaks. Others said they work as much as 10 to 12 hours and only have two breaks -- a 30-minute break and a 15-minute break. "We asked the company to give us whatever the union says, and we're happy," Egal said.

Rodriquez said company officials had a different view on the subject of the eight-hour, 12-minute shifts. "The company claims they were not working the majority of (workers who walked off jobs Friday) more than eight hours, 12 minutes" per shift, he said. Therefore, those workers were entitled only to two breaks per shift.

Isse said Tuesdays' meeting with Swift officials wasn't entirely unproductive. Officials said they would work to get more Somalis in management positions as well as provide interpreters for workers seeking answers to questions, he said.

Omar Clarke, a 10-month Swift employee, said he feels the company is in breach of contract "because they never gave us the third break."

Swift released a statement Monday afternoon that said a group of workers left without authorization Friday, and the matter was discussed with union representatives. "JBS Swift desires to accommodate the religious practices of all employees, provided it can do so reasonably, safely and without undue burden," the statement said.

Meanwhile, the Muslims' two-page document outlined a list of grievances that extend beyond the current Ramadan issue, including "supervisors and managers that are constantly discriminating against Muslims."

It also detailed events on Friday evening that included harassing a few Somali women who had gone into a locker room to pray, and a shutdown of drinking fountains. (Editor's note: no doubt because they were trying to wash their feet in them.) Khadra Abdullahi, 22, said a supervisor stepped on her back as she was laying on the floor to pray on Friday evening. The supervisor, she said, told her work wasn't the place for exercising and then pushed her against a wall.

Abdi Karim, 23, said he was told he couldn't drink from a fountain Friday evening and "they wouldn't let me go to the bathroom for a regular bathroom break."

Federal law requires firms to accommodate, as best as possible, employees' religious practices.

The Muslim workers said they plan to take the matter to court if they can't reach a settlement with Swift.

This week's actions are rooted in events at the plant on Friday. That afternoon, about 150 non-Muslim Swift workers protested the company's break-time accommodation of the Muslims.

Manny Gonzales, spokesman for the UFCW Local 7, said Tuesday the union objected to what company officials did because it felt "the company was trying to sidestep the union to make this deal with workers. ... It's sort of how you get these sort of disagreements."

While some Muslim workers said their complaints to union representatives have been ignored, Gonzales said the union will support them. He said if the Muslim workers are terminated in a way the union deems unfair, the union will step in to protect their rights and employment. "Obviously, we want to accommodate the workers so they're able to observe their religious freedoms, and we believe the contract already has language in it that protects the workers' religious freedoms of Ramadan," he said.