Tyson workers revote; Labor Day brought back

Friday, August 8, 2008


This story is three years old. Here is a link to the company's statement on its current policies.

We continue to receive numerous comments on this story each day from persons outside our coverage area. There have been no developments in this story in three years and we are not actively covering it. Unless you live in or have a direct connection to our coverage area, your views should be shared directly with Tyson Foods, the RWDSU, your local media, or national media, NOT with the Times-Gazette. The "respond to editor" link will not result in anyone other than the Times-Gazette news staff seeing your comments -- and we have nothing to do with setting or changing Tyson Foods' personnel policies. We are a locally-oriented newspaper primarily concerned with the views and interests of our local readers, or those with some direct connection to our community.

Members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and Tyson Foods workers at the poultry processing plant in Shelbyville overwhelmingly voted to overturn a union contract provision that replaced Labor Day as a paid holiday with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, it was announced this morning.

The new agreement will increase the number of paid days off for workers in the current calendar year to include both Labor Day and the Muslim observance as paid holidays for workers in the Shelbyville plant.

The agreement amends the existing contract negotiated last year, according to a press release from the RWDSU.

In a statement by Tyson spokesperson Libby Lawson, the food processing giant made this request on behalf of its Shelbyville plant employees, "some of whom had expressed concern about the new contract provisions relative to paid holidays."

"In an effort to be responsive, Tyson asked the union to reopen the contract to address the holiday issue, and the union agreed to do so." Lawson said.

The RWDSU membership voted overwhelmingly Thursday to reinstate Labor Day as one of the plant's paid holidays, while keeping Eid al-Fitr as an additional paid holiday for this year only.

"This means that in 2008 only, Shelbyville employees will have nine paid holidays," Lawson said.

The union says that beginning in calendar year 2009, a worker who does not observe Eid al-Fitr "will have the option of selecting another day as a paid Personal Day at their discretion."

"The amended contract will be extended throughout the life of the current labor agreement and will recognize the following eight (8) paid holidays: New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and Eid al-Fitr or Personal Holiday upon an employee's request.

"The union is pleased that the will of the workers in Shelbyville to observe and celebrate Eid al-Fitr will be guaranteed as a paid holiday," said Stuart Appelbaum, national president of the RWDSU.

"The RWDSU believes that this is an important sign of respect of deeply held religious beliefs. This Labor Day, the workers at Shelbyville have more reason than ever to be proud of being part of a union."

Concerns expressed

Earlier this week, local political leaders called on Tyson Foods and the RWDSU, asking both entities to reconsider the contract.

While Bedford County Mayor Eugene Ray said the food processing giant has been good to the community economically, "this is not the image we want from Tyson Foods."

In a letter to the Times-Gazette published Thursday, Ray, Shelbyville Mayor Wallace Cartwright, Democratic State Rep. Curt Cobb, and Republican State Sen. Jim Tracy said that substituting Labor Day "for a non-traditional holiday is unacceptable."

"For over a hundred years, Labor Day has stood as a symbol to honor the working men and women of this country. But for the past few years traditions like Labor Day have been under attack. This time it's gone too far and we, as patriotic Americans, must draw our line in the sand."

The letter stated that religious freedom in America is "a founding principle of this nation" and offering those with different beliefs a chance to worship "is a long tradition in this country."

"But in America we do not need to allow substitutions and exceptions to our beloved heritage," the four wrote.

The leaders stated they had spoken with the RWDSU and Tyson Food officials "and have asked them to reconsider their contract actions and work to restore America's image as a nation built on noble traditions."

"We must stand up for working people of Shelbyville, Bedford County, and all Tennesseans, stand up to defend our heritage, rights and privileges in celebrating the American Worker for all that they have done to make this country great!" the letter concluded.

In an interview with the county mayor, Ray said he didn't know anything about the controversial issue until he read it in the pages of the Times-Gazette.

"My impression was, when I read it in the paper ... they should have that day (Labor Day) and if they want to take off that other day (Eid al-Fitr) that should be up to the company," Ray said.

After thinking about the issue, Ray said because Tyson Foods is a private enterprise, he couldn't tell them what to do, "but I didn't think it was a good thing to do as a business."

But then, Ray began to receive a series of calls asking "what in the world is taking place," he said, relating that the callers thought Tyson's actions "were a bad thing," although Ray said callers expressed it more forcefully.

"I think Tyson needs to go back and reconsider this," Ray said. "They need to sit down and renegotiate this. They had honorable intentions to try to do something for the plant, but it's a mistake."

Citizens 'upset'

Ray said that a majority of the people Tyson serves "are upset with it."

"Most of them think that when people come to America, they should do as Americans do, instead of Americans changing and adapting things the way they do. In language, traditions and all of that."

The mayor said the county needs for people to be employed, but the Labor Day issue has had a major impact on the perception of Tyson Foods and the way they do business. Ray says the controversy is not a racial issue, but instead about an American tradition where "many people take pride in Labor Day."

Sen. Tracy said Thursday that he had heard from a number of his constituents about the issue, describing them as "concerned and upset."

On Tuesday, Tracy, Cobb, a couple of citizens and members of the Chamber of Commerce met with local Tyson Foods officials to bring out their concerns. Tracy said the gathering "was a very good meeting."

Getting along

Mayor Ray also said that a lot of work needs to be done to help the Somalis "get along with people, how to work with people ... and how to be kind to one another."

This is in reference to the frequent reports from the public of the refugee's "rude and demanding" attitude that the T-G reported in the Somalis on Shelbyville series published in December 2007.

Ray said he is "still working on that," meeting with Imam Haji Yousuf, of Shelbyville's Muslim mosque.

The mayor said the problems stem from the customs of the Somalis, "not them (the refugees) so much, but the way they are used to operating in their country, which is more aggressive than most people that come here."

"Their custom is to negotiate everything, but here you go into stores, you don't negotiate, you make your mind up if you want to pay for it or not."

"They're here, they are part of the community, they are part of the economy, so it's not like you can just tell them to leave ... but Tyson is the reason why they are here, they are attracted by them, they come from different places to work here," Ray said.

"Tyson's got a big stake in this to help the community, to orientate the people (Somalis) to be kind, to be nice, to be polite," Ray said.