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 (Sept. 10).
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 agreement.”
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 work.”
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 dispersed.
“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 surprise.
“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 workers.
“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 lines.
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 water.
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.
JBS Swift is a meat industry company. They are to be found at the following website.
JBS Swift & Companyâ„¢ 1770 Promontory Circle Greeley, CO 80634 970.506.8000