Create a free account to continue

Union: Swift Plant Agrees To Muslim Accommodations

A JBS Swift plant agreed to temporarily change the timing of a lunch break to accommodate workers wanting time to pray during the Muslim observance of Ramadan.

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- A dispute over Muslim prayer time at a Grand Island meatpacking plant appears to have been settled, a union official said Wednesday.

Dan Hoppes, president of the local United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said management at the JBS Swift & Co. plant has agreed to temporarily change the timing of the second-shift lunch break to accommodate workers wanting time to pray during the Muslim observance of Ramadan.

Workers previously took the 30-minute break in shifts. The change will force the entire line to break at once, which Hoppes said doesn't violate the union contract.

"Hopefully we've got this put to bed," said Hoppes, who met with workers and management Tuesday.

The news comes two days after 300 Muslim Swift workers walked off the job in protest of the prayer dispute, and many of the workers, who are mostly of Somali background, marched to Grand Island City Hall with signs urging religious freedom. All the protesting workers are Muslim and most are from Somalia.

About 50 people staged a second protest Tuesday at City Hall, Grand Island police said.

A phone message left with company officials was not immediately returned Wednesday. Company officials had released a statement Tuesday saying their hope was to strike a balance between the workers' requests and the company's operational requirements.

The plant employs about 2,500 people, not including management, Hoppes said. He estimates about 500 of the plant's workforce is Muslim.

The upset workers say they haven't been allowed to pray at sunset during their holiest month, Ramadan, which occurs in September this year.

The temporary arrangement will be in effect the next nine working days, which will cover the remainder of Ramadan, Hoppes said.

No firings have occurred as a result of the protest, though some workers who didn't call in their absences will receive letters saying they violated their contract, he said.

More than 100 workers at a Greeley, Colo., Swift plant were fired last week because the company said they walked away from work before their shifts ended.

The workers blamed the company's refusal to allow their breaks to coincide with sunset so they could pray.

The union has investigated claims that a woman was kicked by a supervisor at the Grand Island plant when she attempted to pray. The questioning turned up neither someone who would confirm it happened nor a witness who saw it occur, Hoppes said.

"I'm not saying it didn't happen. I'm not saying it did happen ... but no one would stand up and say it did happen," he said.

Swift, which was purchased by Brazil's JBS SA in March, has had problems with Muslim workers at the Grand Island plant in the past. Dozens of workers from Somalia quit their jobs last year because, they said, they weren't allowed to pray at sunset. They eventually returned to work.

The current contract doesn't expire until 2010, but Hoppes said he was hopeful of not seeing the same issue crop up again next year.

"If we know what we know now, maybe we can get out of ahead of it and stop it," he said.

More in Labor