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100 Muslims fired for 'violation' of union contract

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    JBS Swift fires about 100 Muslims for violation of union contract Chris Casey, Greeley, Colorado
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 12, 2008
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      JBS Swift fires about 100 Muslims for 'violation' of union contract
      Chris Casey, Greeley, Colorado

      The Muslim workers of JBS Swift & Co. who were terminated Wednesday
      over disputes regarding breaks to pray gathered outside the company's
      perimeter after receiving their termination papers.
      Photo: SARA LOVEN/gtphoto@...

      A week-long dispute between JBS Swift & Co. and hundreds of Muslim
      workers seeking Ramadan prayer accommodations flared into firings of
      about 100 workers Wednesday afternoon.

      Some said they will take legal action against the company, and a
      spokesman for United Food Commercial Workers Local 7, which
      represents production workers at Swift, said the union will file a
      grievance for any worker who wants his or her job back.

      The workers had been off the job since early evening Friday, when
      about 220 of them walked off mid-shift, claiming they weren't being
      given break times at a previously agreed to time. All the workers
      were notified they were being suspended.

      A JBS Swift official on Wednesday said via email correspondence that
      the company upheld an agreement made with the workers and that the
      Friday walkout was a "direct violation of our collective bargaining

      Relayed through a group of Muslim leaders, JBS Swift officials told
      the workers early Tuesday afternoon that if they didn't return to
      work for that day's second shift, they'd be fired.

      About 120 Muslim workers returned to work Tuesday. The roughly 100
      remaining who didn't report until Wednesday were handed termination
      papers as soon as they arrived, around 3:30 p.m.

      "They're pulling people off the lines," said Mo Abdul, 18, who said
      he was among those fired. "People who are willing to work, ready to

      One laid-off worker, Graen Isse, one of the Muslim leaders, said he
      counted 130 terminated workers.

      As soon as they got their papers they were told to leave the plant.
      All of the laid-off workers refused to sign the sheet. The first 30
      sheets had a union representative write "refused to sign" on the
      employee signature line, but the rest of the termination sheets'
      signature lines were left blank.

      About 15 Greeley police officers arrived at the plant, responding to
      a 3:56 p.m. call from a Swift security guard who said things
      were "getting out of control" inside the plant, said Greeley Police
      Chief Jerry Garner, who also went to the plant.

      Police said one minor assault was reported and they were
      investigating to determine who was involved. Garner said a plant
      official said one worker was apparently disorderly and escorted from
      the scene. Police didn't find any disturbances, however, and remained
      on scene as the Muslim workers, mostly Somalis who have been hired at
      Swift in the past year, filed out and onto a grassy area outside the
      employee parking lot. They talked in groups for about an hour, then

      "We didn't get any notice this was coming this afternoon," Garner
      said, noting that his department has daily communication with JBS
      Swift, usually in the morning. "This was a surprise to us."

      Manny Gonzales, spokesman for UFCW Local 7, said he also was taken by

      "I'm a bit shocked that they would let this many people go without
      giving them ample notice about when they needed to get back to their
      jobs," he said Wednesday afternoon.

      He said that when JBS Swift officials released word about possible
      firings Tuesday afternoon, it was too late for the suspended

      "There might be some who just chose not to go back (Tuesday
      afternoon), but we think the majority just didn't get enough notice,"
      he said.

      The issue arose on Sept. 2 when Muslim employees asked management to
      accommodate a break at the end of their daily fasting for Ramadan,
      which began Sept. 1. They wanted a break at 7:30 p.m. -- about 90
      minutes earlier than the usual mid-shift breaks at 9:15 p.m.

      The Muslim workers said JBS Swift officials agreed to the request and
      would begin it later in the week. They said when they left for breaks
      around 7:30 p.m. Friday supervisors told them to stay on their

      They said bathrooms were locked to them and drinking fountains shut
      off. They walked off the job, being told they were suspended.

      "The people got fired because they walked out on Friday night because
      the company didn't let them pray," said Abdul.

      Not so, Swift officials said Wednesday.

      Tamara Smid, company spokeswoman, said in an email that JBS Swift
      officials met with union leadership and Muslim leaders for the past
      week to address the second-shift lunch break. Smid said it was agreed
      the second-shift workers' breaks would be moved to 8 p.m. as a
      compromise between non-Muslim workers who wanted the mid-shift break
      at 9:15 p.m. and Muslims who wanted it at 7:22 p.m., she said.

      "On Friday, many employees walked off the job without proper
      authorization. This action is a direct violation of our collective
      bargaining agreement," Smid said in the email. Union leadership was
      notified and employees were told that, pursuant to the union
      contract, failure to report to work when recalled would result
      termination. Most of the suspended workers returned to work Tuesday,
      Smid said, "and those that did not were notified this afternoon of
      their termination."

      She said JBS Swift works closely with all employees and their union
      representation to "accommodate religious practices in a reasonable,
      safe and fair manner."

      The sheet given fired workers said the reason for termination was for
      violation of "Article 8" in the bargaining agreement "because you
      participated in an unauthorized work stoppage Friday and continued
      through Tuesday."

      Gonzales said the UFCW doesn't believe the walkout constitutes a work
      stoppage. "In this case we don't think their going on break would
      rise to that article."

      Hashim Yusuf, 25, stood among other fired workers outside the
      employee parking lot Wednesday. He wore a University of Northern
      Colorado sweatshirt.

      "Today we had returned in order to work," he said. "If we would have
      worked we would have come out at 7:30 for prayer. We will have come
      out for a reason."

      Muslim workers said during Ramadan they fast starting at sunrise, so
      by 7:30 p.m., they have gone about 14-1/2 hours without food or

      In a two-page grievance letter given to Swift officials Tuesday,
      Muslim leaders said plant supervisors and managers "are constantly
      discriminating against Muslims."

      The Muslim workers have said their evening prayer breaks amount to
      five or 10 minutes. They said other companies in the meat-packing
      industry have accommodated their religious practices.

      Some Muslim workers at JBS Swift have said they weren't getting
      support from union representatives, both on the break issue and other
      work-related grievances.

      Late last week the union filed a grievance against company management
      arguing that it had sidestepped the UFCW in reaching an agreement
      with the Muslim workers. Some employees disagreed with the switch to
      an earlier mid-shift break, and about 150 non-Muslim workers on
      Friday afternoon protested the time change for mid-shift break.
      Fernando Rodriquez, UFCW Local 7 leader at JBS Swift, will meet with
      the Muslim leaders Thursday, Gonzales said.

      Isse, one of the Greeley Muslim leaders, said Wednesday the fired
      workers would go home and gather for a meal Thursday morning.

      "We'll tell them to go forward, whether it means to go to a lawyer or
      whatever we have to do," Isse said.

      -- Nate Miller contributed to this report.

      Minnesota company gives Muslims short prayer breaks

      On Wednesday, Minnesota-based Gold'n Plump Inc., a poultry processing
      firm, agreed to allow Muslim workers short prayer breaks and the
      right to refuse handling of pork.

      The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis reported that the federally mediated
      agreement -- a year in the making in response to a class-action
      lawsuit brought by nine Somali workers -- is among the first in the
      nation that requires employers to accommodate the Islamic prayer
      schedule. It also accommodates the belief held by many Muslims that
      the Qur'an prohibits the touching and eating of pork products.

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