Greeley Tribune: CAIR lawyer talks with fired Swift workers

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Attorney: Group has talked with Greeley plant for year about breaks for Muslims

A volunteer attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations said Wednesday CAIRhas been negotiating for a year with JBS Swift & Co. about break times for Muslim workers.

Rima Kapitan, with CAIR’s Chicago office, on Wednesday met with Muslim workers recently fired by JBS Swift. She said CAIR is coordinating with an attorney retained by about 60 of the fired workers.

Kapitan said more talks are planned this week between CAIR and national officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents production workers at Swift.

“We’ve been in contact (with JBS Swift) since about a year ago and proposed a number of possible solutions, or adjustments, that would accommodate the workers and not impose undue burden on Swift, but these offers have been unsuccessful so far,” Kapitan said.

Meanwhile, JBS Swift management on Wednesday agreed to temporarily change the timing of the second-shift lunch break at the company’s Grand Island, Neb., plant. The move will give workers time to pray during the Muslim observance of Ramadan.

Workers previously took the 30-minute break in shifts. The change will force the entire line to break at once.

The news comes two days after about 300 Muslim workers walked off the job in Grand Island in protest of the prayer dispute.

In Greeley, Kapitan said some of the roughly 120 Muslim workers fired on Sept. 10 have starting looking elsewhere for work.

“A lot of them are demoralized,” she said. “A lot of them moved from out of state to work here, and they’re just asking for a few minutes a day to pray.”

JBS Swift officials, meanwhile, have said they reached a compromise between Muslim and non-Muslim second-shift workers to move the “lunch” break to 8 p.m. during Ramadan. That break time, officials said, would allow prayer and end-of-fast time for the Muslims, who during Ramadan fast from sunrise to sunset, to a period shortly after sunset.

The Muslim workers dispute that such an agreement was reached. They said the company agreed to let them break around 7:20 p.m. and that they were told at the last minute that the break time wouldn’t be until 8 p.m. That led to a walkout of about 300 workers around 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 5. All of the workers were suspended, but about 120 were fired on Sept. 10 because they hadn’t returned to work by Sept. 9 as the company instructed.

While CAIR has filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission-related grievances against the Grand Island plant, Kapitan said, none to her knowledge have been filed in Greeley.

She said some of CAIR’s suggestions for prayer breaks for Muslim workers, both during Ramadan and the remainder of the year, at the Greeley plant include:

— A change of the 30-minute “lunch” break during the second shift to an earlier time, allowing Muslim workers to pray during these times. “I understand (JBS Swift) have negotiated contracts elsewhere in the country to accommodate Muslim workers,” Kapitan said. “So we know it’s possible.”

— Move Muslim workers to a morning shift, where the issue of prayer breaks is less problematic.

— Allow workers a short break to pray, such as when they go on permitted restroom breaks.

Kapitan said CAIR has notified the attorney representing the Greeley workers that it’s willing to help on behalf of the fired workers.

“We’re here to defend an American ideal, and it’s an American ideal that people from different faiths should be able to practice their faiths in this country,” she said.

JBS Swift representatives were not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Copyright © 2008, The Greeley Tribune