Union takes step down slippery slope

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The recent announcement by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union that its new contract with Tyson Foods' Shelbyville Plant implemented a new holiday for the plant's Muslim workers, in exchange for Labor Day, has created a national firestorm of debate.

In the agreement, all union workers must surrender their paid holiday on Labor Day in exchange for a paid holiday on the Muslim holy day Eid al-Fitr, which falls at the end of Ramadan. This year, it is October 1, but it changes every year.

Much of the ensuing comment has denounced Tyson Foods, with many people calling for a boycott of the company's products. This kneejerk reaction to the announcement is misdirected. A boycott of Tyson would do more harm than good.

A successful boycott would affect the lives of thousands locally. It would affect the local workers, chicken producers, truck drivers, and all their families. The economic impact would stretch throughout all sectors of our local economy, and would, either directly or indirectly, negatively effect everyone living in this county at some level. We can't afford to lose another industry.

We feel the anger is misdirected, because Tyson simply agreed to a contract presented by the RWDSU, which made the Muslim holiday a priority in its contract negotiations. Tyson gave the workers what it thought they wanted, as presented by union representation.

The RWDSU, on one hand, should be commended for bringing the Muslim's concerns to the negotiating table. Allowing Muslims a paid holiday on their holy day is one thing, but to take Labor Day away from everyone else in order to do so was not such a good idea, especially since it seems the Muslims are the minority in this case.

In its original announcement, the union claimed there were 700 muslims working at the plant, out of a total of 1,200. Tyson has maintained that only about 250 of its Shelbyville workers are Muslims, a clear minority.

The union took its original press release off its web site Tuesday, the same day in which the New York Times quoted the union as saying there were nearly 400 Muslims at the plant. A new statement issued by the RWDSU Tuesday refers to "many" Muslim workers at the plant. A Tyson spokesperson Tuesday called the union's figures "misinformation," and said the union acknowledged its original number was inaccurate.

This raises the question: Did the union intentionally inflate the numbers in its initial announcement to justify the holiday exchange? Or, was it working with the wrong numbers to begin with?

If the RWDSU made the holiday exchange for 700 Muslims, which would be a majority of the plant's workers, it would be more understandable. However, to make the change for a minority is a slap in the face to the majority of non-Muslims at the plant. It's a case of political correctness run amok.

It also is ironic that the union chose to surrender Labor Day, a holiday for which American unions fought so hard in the past. Whatever happened to the idea of honoring the American worker?

The union claims it is merely setting a trend and that other unions and factories will follow suit. With this line of thinking, will the RWDSU next negotiate an exchange of Memorial Day, another non-religious American holiday, for Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican day of celebration? How safe is Thanksgiving in this brave new world?

Perhaps the union would have better served its entire membership by proposing that all workers receive eight flexible paid days off per year, which could be taken at the individual worker's discretion. A combination of fixed and flexible holidays is another solution that makes sense. For instance, everyone takes off on Christmas, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and Labor Day, and then can choose three additional paid days off at their discretion.

With either of these solutions, traditional workers could take a paid day off on Labor Day, Muslims could have Eid al-Fitr, and Mexicans could have Cinco de Mayo. Production could continue on each of these days, and everyone would have a better chance of being satisfied, thus being more producive while at work.

At the least, the American public wouldn't be calling for tar and feathers. Nor would they consider this one more step down a slippery slope.