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.
"Muslims are the newest immigrants, it's a religion that we're not all that familiar with in society, and we've got to kind of grow and learn about what is appropriate for religious accommodations," she said. "It's clearly a place where the union has the opportunity to help educate the total membership and work out accommodations."
The sunset prayer is one of five daily prayers in Islam. Workplace disputes over prayer breaks periodically come up, Abraham said. Ensuring observance of the sunset prayer is crucial during Ramadan, which ends Oct. 1 this year, because Muslims cannot eat or drink before performing it. The prayer only takes about five minutes, followed by 10 minutes to break the daytime fast, she explained.
About 20 employees who were fired last year for insisting on taking prayer breaks at JBS Swift's Nebraska plant filed charges of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for denial of religious accommodation, according to Abraham.
Company spokeswoman Tamara Smid declined to comment on negotiations with employees or pending legal action. In a statement, she said, "JBS values its diverse work force and has a long track record of making significant accommodations to employees. We work closely with all employees and union representation to accommodate religious practices in a reasonable, safe and fair manner."
Last month, a Tyson Foods plant in Tennessee that had replaced Labor Day with Eid al-Fitr -- the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan -- as one of eight paid holidays decided to reinstate its original schedule in response to community outrage. Next year, the Muslim workers, who make up about a quarter of the plant's 1,200 employees, will instead have the option of taking Eid al-Fitr off in lieu of another paid holiday.
CAIR and local Muslim organizations are working on public education campaigns to reduce hostility against such requests. CAIR has also asked the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission to set up workshops to help the employees file discrimination charges against Swift, Abraham said.
"It always surprises me when I hear, `they should just deal with it, this isn't their country and they need to just work or leave,"' she said. "People who say that don't really understand what this country stands for and that the rights that it protects applies to everybody, regardless of where they're from."