Hundreds of Muslim workers at two meat processing plants in Colorado and Nebraska walked off the job earlier this month, protesting their employer's refusal to grant time to pray and break a 12-hour fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
About 100 workers were fired in Greeley, Colo., followed by about 80 in Grand Island, Neb. JBS Swift & Co. insists the terminations had nothing to do with religion, but rather with employees refusing to return to work.
Whatever its outcome, the stand-off and others like it may mark the start of a grassroots Muslim labor movement in the United States, as immigrants push for the kinds of religious accommodations they believe their Christian counterparts take for granted.
"American Muslims in recent years have become more organized and aware of our rights as Americans," said Ameena Mirza Qazi, a staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). "As American Muslims become more a part of the American fabric -- as educators, professionals, leaders, day laborers, and factory workers -- we increasingly avail ourselves of rights that every American values."
About one-fifth of the workers at the two JBS Swift plants are Muslim, many of them Somali immigrants. The United Food and Commercial Workers union represents employees at both sites, but has had trouble negotiating because of counter-protests by other workers, who say it's not fair to grant time off to a religious minority.
Nevertheless, the disgruntled Muslim workers will continue working within the union to educate co-workers about their needs, rather than form a separate bargaining organization, said Christina Abraham, civil rights director for CAIR in Chicago.
"They shouldn't separate themselves from the other employees in requesting fair working accommodations," she said. "There hasn't been any kind of movement to create a Muslim workers union, because we feel this is an issue that potentially any employee of any religious background will face."
Interfaith Worker Justice, a national organization that engages the religious community in low-wage worker issues, is carefully watching the recent protests. When a union works on behalf of Muslim immigrants, as with a contract for Ohio janitors negotiated to include prayer breaks last year, the wider community benefits from increased dialogue and cross-cultural cooperation, said Kim Bobo, IWJ executive director. . .