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Somali Union Workers Fired for Wildcat Strike

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On December 23, approximately 180 workers, most of them Somalis (in the U.S. as “protected refugees” under ICE provisions), were fired at a Cargill Meat Solutions facility in Fort Morgan, Colorado, for staging what amounted to an illegal “walkout” in protest of not being given sufficient on-the-job time to pray.

While the Somalis claim that Cargill management had reneged on its pledge to give Muslim workers adequate time away from their job to pray, Cargill management insists that, while they’ve willingly sought to accommodate employee wishes to engage in prayer, the demands of the workplace have always taken precedence.

In response to being deprived of “prayer time,” approximately 20 Somalis walked off the job, and another 160 refused to report to work. Cargill’s Fort Morgan plant employs roughly 2,000 people, 600 of which are Somalis, more than 400 of whom are still on the payroll.

This is an IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) facility, Local 455. It is covered by a standard Teamster contract, one of whose provisions is its 3-day “no call, no show” language, which states that an employee failing to report to work for three days, and failing to contact the company (and can’t be reached by the company), is subject to termination. This is boilerplate language found not only in Teamster contacts, but in thousands of other union contracts.

I spoke with a reporter from the Denver Post this morning, but no one seems to know (or is willing to say) what is happening, other than noting that back-channel discussions are taking place between Cargill management and employee representatives. The Somalis are being represented formally by the IBT, and informally by CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations).

Although it’s based on pure speculation, there’s a good chance that Cargill management and the Somali “holdouts” will reach an agreement that allows employees who have been terminated (for whatever reason) to waive the mandatory six-month waiting period before reapplying. That would be a happy ending for all concerned.

CAIR’s spokesman, Jaylani Hussein, has maintained all along that this was more a “misunderstanding” than a “rebellion,” and he’s likely right. The Somalis have a good track record as employees. According to all reports, they’re happy to be living in the U.S., earning $14.00 per hour, and are the last people on the shop floor who are going to cause trouble.

But there are two barriers (both of which have to do with perception) standing in the way of a quick solution. For one, management is very likely to balk at bringing them back without penalty, fearing this would make them appear “susceptible” to threats.

If Cargill management thinks the Somalis’ strike will be judged “successful,” they simply won’t do it. Caving in to employee demands because they had a gun pointed at their heads will not only make them look easily intimidated, it will encourage other employees (both Muslim and non-Muslim) to view illegal strikes as a viable tactic.

And for another, good employees or not, it doesn’t take much effort to see these misguided Somali workers as culpable. Not only did they clearly violate the contract by refusing to work, the argument can be made that they were asking for more than “religious freedom.” They were asking for preferential treatment.

One thing that’s been ignored in the conversation is the Teamsters’ “unpaid lunch” provision. There are two types of meal periods in union contracts: paid and unpaid. If your lunch break is “paid,” it means the company, in an emergency situation, can instruct you to return to work. Because they’re still paying you, it makes utter sense that you’re still subject to work directives.

By contrast, an “unpaid” meal period is yours to use as you like. While a person on a “paid” lunch can be terminated for leaving the facility (I’ve seen it happen), a person on an unpaid lunch can go to the bank, run errands, have his car filled with gas, etc. Presumably, he can also use that time to pray. And if he’s a religious type, why wouldn’t he? Unless the reports are wrong, the Fort Morgan facility has “unpaid” lunch periods.

Back in my union days, I experienced something similar to the Cargill situation. In no way was it anywhere nearly as serious as Cargill, but it was on the same “axis.” A group of Christians came to the union and asked if we would request that the company give them access to a conference room in which to hold Bible study meetings.

These Bible study guys already knew that I was a non-Christian, non-believer whom they had come to view as the anti-Christ, but because I was union president, and they were dues-paying union members, it made sense for me to do the asking.

I had no problem making the pitch. I knew every one of them. They were good guys and respected workers, and I was certain their request was being made in earnest. After hearing my pitch, the plant manager agreed to give them access to the room. However, it was understood that these studies would occur after work, never during.

A month later three baseball card hobbyists asked me to ask the plant manager if they could use a conference room to trade sports memorabilia after work. I refused to make that request, and they took offense. When they mentioned the Bible study guys as having “set a precedent,” I told them I didn’t admit the comparison.

My advice to them was to approach the plant manager themselves. The worst thing that could happen is that he says no. But they didn’t appreciate hearing that because they wanted the benefit of union “muscle.” I stubbornly refused and they left angry. I saw three potential votes in the next union election grow wings and fly away.

Personally, I hope these Somalis are reinstated. They messed up, but should be given a second chance. As for “religious freedom,” I think they misunderstood an employer’s obligation to provide a place and time for worship.

On the other hand, labor people have raised some fair questions: Why have ICE agents chased out undocumented Latinos in these meat-packing plants and opened the door to Somalis? Why aren’t more American-born men and women working these $30,000 a year jobs?

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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