Dispatches from the Workplace: Eid stirs fury in Shelbyville, Tennessee

On Friday, August 1, the Shelbyville Times-Gazette ran a story entitled “Tyson drops Labor Day holiday for Eid al-Fitr” that unleashed a firestorm of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, both of which seem far too prevalent for a nation built by immigrants and priding itself on the freedom of religion.

The story was based on an a press release from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) announcing that its new contract included a paid holiday for Eid al-Fitr, which is the most important Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Eid al-Fitr, often called just Eid, is as important to Muslims as Christmas or Easter is to most Christians. The Times-Gazette article explained that the negotiated contract gave workers Eid as a holiday in place of Labor Day.

Both Tyson Foods and RWDSU seemed a bit surprised by the vitriolic community response to a negotiated contract that addressed both worker and employer concerns. In past years it had been difficult to operate the plant because so many of the plant’s Muslim workers took off on Eid, so the contract appeared to be a win-win approach. The plant employs approximately 1,200 workers of which 700 are Muslim. Among the Muslim workers are 250 relatively new Somali refuges. Unfortunately, many Shelbyville residents didn’t see the contract as a win-win. Instead, many viewed the switching of Eid for Labor Day as anti-American. The reader responses to the initial articles offer a flavor of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments.

Commenter “kingtown” wrote that:

Laborers are the heart and soul of this country. Without the muscle and sweat of these dedicated people products aren’t made or moved. You have slapped them in the face! Good job, that’s just what we needed another un-American company to debase those wonderful people that keep this country going. I think I’ll choose another product to use from now on. Oh, by the way Muslims are not our friends; they want all of us infidels to die. If you don’t believe that to be true you had better get more familiar with the Koran before you do any more pandering to them. Then try reading John 3:16 you just can’t beat them for God’s truth.

Soon after the article and comments like the one above appeared, political leaders of Shelbyville asked Tyson Foods and the RWDSU to reconsider their contract. They did so quickly and the union members voted on a new agreement that gives workers both Eid and Labor Day in 2008 and then in 2009 allows workers a choice of either Eid or another paid personal day. Both the union and the company leaders should be commended for their quick response and another solution that addresses both the workers’ and the employer’s concerns. “We always seek to represent the concerns of the workers, while appreciating the constraints of the business leaders,” said Stuart Appelbaum, national president of the RWDSU. “The United States was built with the hands of hardworking immigrants and we must always respect and honor various religious traditions.”

Increasingly, unions and other worker associations that represent largely Muslim workforces, such as SEIU representing janitors or taxi driver associations, have sought to negotiate appropriate ways to accommodate their workers’ religious practices into contracts, such as setting aside a prayer room or allowing workers time for prayer.

Even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, requires employers to accommodate the religious beliefs of workers if it does not cause undue hardship for the employers, most workers and many small employers don’t understand the law. As the nation becomes more religiously diverse, employers are called upon to accommodate their workers’ religious beliefs and practices in new and unfamiliar ways. This has been particularly challenging after 9-11 and the anti-Muslim sentiments in the nation. As a result, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the anti-discrimination laws, has received many more charges of religious discrimination in the last few years than it did throughout the 1990’s.

On July 22, 2008, the EEOC issued an excellent new resource manual, “EEOC Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination,” to help employers and workers learn more about the issues. The manual contains many useful examples of what is and is not religious discrimination and helps both employers and workers understand what is reasonable accommodation and what are best workplace policies for ensuring compliance with religious discrimination laws. It recommends that an employer should:

1) Train managers and supervisors about the importance of respecting religious diversity and seeking ways to accommodate various religious practices.

2) Talk with an employee requesting religious accommodation and seek a resolution of the request if at all possible.

3) Include a prohibition on religious discrimination in the anti-harassment policy that it distributes to its employees and adopt a comprehensive procedure for handling complaints by employees that they or others are being harassed. If an employee expresses any concerns about religious discrimination or harassment in the workplace, address the concerns immediately.

4) Consider schedule changes to accommodate religious practices if it can be done without undue hardship on the employer.

5) Offer changes of job assignments or lateral transfers to accommodate religious concerns if it can be done without placing hardship to the employer or other employees.

6) Allow workers to wear religious garb unless there are strong safety or other significant business reasons not to allow it.

7) Be careful not to pressure workers into attending social gatherings or events that are objectionable to some for religious reasons.

8) Consider whether there is private space that might be made available for workers to pray or conduct religious activities if such space is requested.

9) Create an environment of respect toward all religious traditions and toward those with no religious traditions.

10) Refrain from considering an employee’s religious beliefs when making decisions concerning hiring, promotion, training, layoff or termination.

Even though the contract between RWDSU and Tyson allowing the poultry workers in Shelbyville to get Eid as a holiday set forth a firestorm of concerns, it was clearly a reasonable accommodation of religion in the workplace. RWDSU and Tyson should both be commended for finding such accommodation initially and then finding an even better accommodation in the revised contract.

As we seek to become a more tolerant and discrimination-free society, in the midst of increasing religious pluralism, the Shelbyville situation reminds us of the challenges the nation faces. Luckily, the EEOC’s new manual offers concrete tools and guidelines for workers and employers in addressing those challenges.