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Unions, Latinos, Muslims, Management, Adventists

The Wall Street Journal reports that “Claims of religious discrimination filed with federal, state and local agencies have doubled over the past 15 years and rose 15% during 2007 to 4,515, a record.”

“That’s fewer than 5% of workplace-discrimination claims, but the number is growing faster than claims based on race or gender, says Reed Russell, a counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The increase reflects greater religious diversity and openness about faith in the workplace, Mr. Russell says.”

The following WSJ report creates an interesting narrative in which unions, Latinos, Muslims, Management and Adventists intersect. As undocumented workers have been rounded up, several Mid-West meat processing plants have hired hundreds of Muslims and their daily prayer needs have increased conflict between bosses and workers.

The tensions at the JBS plant in Grand Island, Neb., started in 2006, after government raids removed around 400 undocumented Latino workers. In their place, the plant hired hundreds of Somali refugees who had been resettled in places like Minnesota and Ohio. Most were Muslim, and few spoke English.

The new workers soon clashed with management over praying at sunset, which falls in the middle of the plant’s second shift. Up to a quarter of the 1,200 workers on that shift were Muslim, Mr. Schult estimates.

When some workers slipped off their lines to pray in locker rooms or bathrooms, supervisors ordered them back to work or cited them for taking “illegal breaks,” according to Mr. Schult and a union representative. A few were fired.

The Somali workers said that they should be allowed to pray on their breaks and would be gone for only a few minutes. Supervisors responded that the only permitted unscheduled breaks were for use of the bathroom and that the plant couldn’t have hundreds of workers leaving the lines at the same time.

“It takes less than five minutes,” says Graen Isse, a Somali worker who was fired following a similar dispute at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colo. He says he and other workers offered to let JBS deduct pay for time spent praying.

There were some talks between labor and management, but the talks broke down in late 2007. Then the problems intensified during Ramadan in this September.

A Somali woman claimed a supervisor kicked her while she was praying. The supervisor said he didn’t see her and only kicked the cardboard she was sitting on, says Dan Hoppes, the president of UFCW Local 22, which investigated the charge.

In protest, as many as 400 Somalis walked off the job for two days, demonstrating at Grand Island City Hall and asking for time to pray. After a day of negotiations, JBS managers agreed to move to 7:45 p.m. a break that had been scheduled around 8:15 p.m., says Abdi Mohamed, a Somali worker who participated in the discussions and was later fired. Mr. Mohamed, 28 years old, came to the U.S. in September 2007 and spoke through an interpreter.

The next day, non-Muslim workers, who are largely Latinos, staged a counterprotest and walked out themselves. Some resented what they saw as shirking by Somalis. “They used to go to the bathroom but actually they’re praying and the rest of us have to do their work,” says José Amaya, an immigrant from El Salvador who has been working at the factory more than four years.

Donato Medina, a 13-year JBS veteran, says he gets along well with Somali workers but walked out because he thought their complaints had gotten a special hearing. “I thought, this is an opportunity to tell the company we’re not happy,” he says.

JBS managers restored the original break time. That evening, Somali workers protested in the cafeteria, then walked off the job again, say workers and managers. When they returned the next morning, JBS managers told around 80 of them they were fired. About 100 other workers were fired at the Greeley plant around the same time.

Now, Mr. Mohamed says he’s looking for a job at other meatpacking plants that he thinks are more flexible about prayer issues. Managers in Grand Island are holding “diversity” meetings to try to resolve some of the tensions.

Mr. Hoppes, the union president, says he’s looking at other religious-discrimination cases for clues on how to handle the problem, though he hasn’t found anything helpful yet. A few years ago, Local 22 lobbied to allow a Seventh Day Adventist (sic) at another meatpacking plant to take Saturdays off, as demanded by his religion. The union lost, he says.

Not exactly a happy ending. What’s next?

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