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Tyson 'regrets' public reaction

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

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Tyson Foods says that Labor Day is still a holiday, but not for the union employees at the Shelbyville poultry processing facility, who will be taking off the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr instead.

Meanwhile, the union that negotiated the controversial contract at the Shelbyville plant has removed the original press release announcing the holiday change from its web site, and the union president has described the backlash to the decision as "bigotry."

The union had stated in a June 19 press release that 700 Muslims worked at the plant, while Tyson repeated Tuesday that there are only 250 Somalis of the 1,000 union members employed there.

Some readers expressed outrage after the Times-Gazette reported that the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) had successfully negotiated a contract at the Shelbyville Tyson facility that took Labor Day away as a paid holiday and replaced it with the Muslim holy day Eid al-Fitr.

Since the T-G broke the story last Friday, it has received national attention and has become a hot topic of discussion on talk radio, the Internet and national TV, including Fox News Channel.

When asked how Tyson Foods felt about the negative backlash against their company that occurred after the T-G published the story last week, spokesperson Libby Lawson said, "we regret how consumers feel about all of this. We sincerely do.

"Feedback has been thought-provoking. We have received a lot of calls expressing anger and support. We are an American-based company with core values that acknowledges diversity and all faiths," Lawson said.

"We have chaplains of many different denominations in most of our plants. It has indeed made us reflective about how we negotiate with unions."

The union refused to answer a series of questions posed by the T-G, but instead released a statement from Stuart Appelbaum, the national president of the RWDSU.

"There's no question that there is a lot of bigotry against Muslims and that this agreement has clearly touched a raw nerve among those who are prejudiced against them," Appelbaum said in the prepared statement. "However, the RWDSU has always understood that unions are only strong when they work to protect the dignity of workers of all faiths.

"That includes Muslims. Our union may be the first to negotiate this kind of agreement, but I have no doubt that others will follow our lead," Appelbaum said.

How many Muslims?

Lawson stated again Tuesday that the Shelbyville facility only has 250 Somalis out of the 1,000 union workers employed there. There are a total of about 1,200 workers at the plant, but 200 of them do not fall under the union.

When asked about the discrepancy in the union's figure of 700 Muslims to the food processor's count of 250, Lawson told the T-G via e-mail that "the union plans to clear up this misinformation in its own press release that should have been released by now."

"We are not sure how this misinformation was shared, but the union acknowledges it was not accurate," Lawson said.

"We have approximately 250 Somalis that work at the Shelbyville plant," Lawson said. "We do not know how many Muslim team members work at Tyson. We do know that approximately 250 Somalis work at the Shelbyville plant."

A new press release issued Tuesday from RWDSU stated only that "many of the company's 1,200 workers are Muslim." The union had not answered repeated inquiries as to how many Muslims it represented at the Shelbyville plant as of press time this morning.

The contract

The Tyson spokesperson stated that out of the approximately 1,200 team members at the plant, "approximately 1,000 are covered by the union contact."

Lawson said that "approximately 200 are not covered by the union contract. They are management and management support positions."

The union contract that removed Labor Day as a paid day off was effective as of Nov. 15 of last year, after negotiations were conducted in October 2007, Lawson explained.

A Tyson Foods press release issued Monday stated that the contract which made the change "was unanimously recommended by the 12-person union bargaining committee, which included three Somali employees.

"The contract was then overwhelmingly agreed to by 80 percent of the rank and file membership of the union at the Shelbyville plant," the press release said. "This change does not apply to Tyson Foods' other 118 plants. This is not a religious accommodation, rather, it is part of a union-initiated contract demand."

"Vote tallies are known by the union," Lawson told the T-G. "When we have negotiations with various unions there is usually a negotiating team composed of company team members and union representatives."

Lawson said that in regard to paid holidays, "we put on the table that there are 8 paid holidays and they can offer which ones they would like to have. They usually pick them with production demands in mind."

"Depending on production demands, in some instances, our team members work on holidays, including Labor Day, which has certainly happened at our Shelbyville plant and others," she said. "Of course, team members are compensated holiday pay in those instances and in accordance with the union contract if there is one."

Only union representatives and Tyson team members were involved in the negotiations, Lawson said.

Cultural diversity

In a press release issued Tuesday, the RWDSU said it has "always prided itself on working hard to negotiate contracts that respect the rich cultural diversity of its members."

"That is what led the union to negotiate a unique agreement at the Shelbyville, Tennessee Tyson poultry processing plant where many of the company's 1,200 workers are Muslim."

The union described Eid al-Fitr as "one of Islam's holiest days," which marks the breaking of the Ramadan fast "and is a day of forgiveness, fellowship, brotherhood and unity."

The day is celebrated on a different day every year, "which makes working it into a contract more difficult than negotiating holidays with set dates," the press release said. "Just as important as winning the Eid as a paid holiday, the RWDSU also arranged for Muslim workers to have the space they need to pray each day."

The press release also quotes Abdillahi Jama, a 54-year-old Somali who came to America in 2004 "as a political refugee," the union said. He eventually came to Shelbyville to work at the Tyson Foods facility

"The new Eid holiday and prayer space are examples of the respect and dignity that come with RWDSU representation," the press release stated.

"This new contract is good because it allows me to work on the second shift and still pray when I need to," Jama said. "It's very important to us, and the Eid is one of our most sacred holidays. It shows how the union helps us."

"If there is a problem with our paycheck, or any other problems at work, we can talk about it and deal with it without being afraid of being fired," he added in the press release.

Jama said that when the new union contract was coming up "we were able to make it clear how important the Muslim holiday is and the negotiating committee worked with Tyson to make this happen. It was different with my first couple of jobs in the U.S."

"I sleep well, I work well, and I live well, and the union has made it possible," Jama stated.

According to RWDSU Alabama and Mid-South Council Representative Randy Hadley, "The negotiating committee made the holiday a top priority in contract talks, and we were able to get management to commit to it."

"It will be a challenge to work the schedule around on short notice every year," Hadley said, "but we are going to make it work."

Union President Appelbaum says in the press release that "the contract is an example of the union's progressive tradition in action."

"The history of the labor movement tells us that unions are at their strongest when they're most inclusive. That means making it our business to stand up to win respect for every worker's right to practice their faith," Appelbaum said.

The union also said that in addition to guaranteeing the right of Muslim workers to practice their faith, "the contract had already made Tyson's Shelbyville plant one of the few U.S. poultry plants with time-and-a half pay for any worker who is on the job over eight hours a day."

"The agreement also provided wage increases and protects the existing health care plan for the life of the contract," the union said.


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