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Swift Workers Say Fairness At Heart Of Prayer Dispute

After Muslim protests and non-Muslim counterprotests, union is having problems negotiating an arrangement that's fair for so many different cultures.

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) -- Melissa Infante sat in her car smoking a cigarette, knowing she was supposed to be packaging meat at the JBS Swift & Co. plant where she's worked for nearly two years.

But she'd walked off the job Thursday morning to protest a schedule change she believes unfairly catered to Muslim workers at the plant, shrugging off warnings from supervisors that she could be fired.

"To me, it's just not fair," Infante said.

On Monday, hundreds of Muslim employees were the first to walk off the job, saying they weren't being allowed to take a break to pray during the holy month of Ramadan. Break times were then altered on the second shift so the Muslim employees, mostly Somali, could make their fourth of five daily prayers at sunset.

Then hundreds of non-Muslim workers walked off the job in counterprotests Wednesday and Thursday morning. Later Thursday, plant managers did an about-face, saying the new break times weren't working.

Company officials have not returned repeated calls from The Associated Press, including a message seeking comment left Thursday.

Tensions have flared elsewhere recently between Muslims workers and officials at other U.S. factories, including Swift's plant in Greeley, Colo. Attorneys for the Council on American-Islamic Relations are now involved as mediators in a similar prayer dispute there.

About 2,500 people work at Swift's Grand Island plant, not counting managers. That includes about 500 Muslims who mostly work the second shift, employees said.

Infante wasn't sympathetic to the Muslim employees, saying her husband, who works the second shift, has had to pick up the slack for co-workers who leave the line for prayer.

The throngs of people gathered outside the plant Thursday echoed similar sentiments, some resorting to expletives to make their case.

Jama Abbi watched through the chain-link fence that ran the length of the plant. He'd walked off the job Monday in solidarity with his fellow Muslim workers, but unlike most of them, Abbi couldn't bring himself to return.

"This job is already hard as it is," he said. "It doesn't need people to make it harder."

Abbi, who said he came to the United States from Somalia two years ago in search of freedom and safety, has heard calls for him to go back to the war-torn country.

He said stories of hour-long breaks have been exaggerated and there have been many misunderstandings about Islam and Somalis in recent days.

"We just asked for five minutes to pray," he said. "That don't hurt nobody."

Plant managers say they have been torn between wanting to accommodate reasonable needs and meeting operational requirements.

Union stewards also find themselves stuck in the middle of the dispute.

It's difficult to work out a contract that's fair for everyone, said Dan Hoppes, president of the Local 22 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Religious rights are worth protecting, he said, but it's tough when you have so many different cultures.

White, Hispanic, African-American and Vietnamese workers mingled Thursday outside an employee entrance to the plant. One man held a handmade sign that read: "Everyone has rights. Be equal!! Be fair!!"

Jacinto Guerrero kept in his pocket a list of needs, a scrap of paper containing words scribbled in Spanish. Breaks at normal times, no religious discrimination, same benefits and privileges, it read.

Guerrero said he comes to work to do his job and so should everyone else.

"You and your religion -- it's between you and God," he said. "You don't need to show it to everybody."

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