Muslims Need to Join a Labor Union


Many will recall that dust-up, in 2008, at the Shelbyville, Tennessee, Tyson poultry processing plant—the one that, figuratively, sent union members and flag-waving patriots across the country running into the streets screaming when they learned that Labor Day had been swapped for Eid al-Fitr (the last day of Ramadan) to accommodate Tyson’s Muslim employees.

That Shelbyville incident was remarkable for several reasons. First, that it happened in Tennessee and not some cool place like Eugene, Oregon, or New York City was a shocker. Nothing against the good folks of the Volunteer State, but Tennessee is not exactly known as a bastion of organized labor or, for that matter, as the hub of cultural and international diversity.

Second, who knew that there were hundreds of Somalis working in meat-processing factories throughout the Deep South? Who knew that? Once the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) began raiding meatpacking plants and kicking out undocumented Latinos, it opened the door to resourceful Somalis, who had “protected refugee” status under ICE provisions.

The Somalis got those jobs at Tyson with the help of the Tennessee Department of Employment Security office. And once that happened, it was Adios, muchachos, and As-Salam-u-Alaikum, my East African graveyard shift-workers.

Third, it was extraordinary that the union, the RWDSU (Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union), could be so astonishingly open-minded and resolute about something like this, especially knowing (as it had to know) that it was going to create a major shit-storm.

Briefly, the facts were these: With hundreds of Somalis working at the Shelbyville facility, a delegation of them approached the union leadership and asked that Eid al-Fitr be swapped for Labor Day. Basically, in their eyes, they were requesting that a deeply regarded religious holy day, which a sizeable portion of the plant recognized, be swapped for what amounted to an end-of-summer barbeque fest.

Of course, in response to the ensuing outrage, everyone had to walk back what they said. Not only the Tyson people, but the RWDSU as well. Even though the union can be said to have done the “right thing” by representing its membership (moreover, the swapping of holidays was approved by a membership vote), reaction to the deal was swift and harsh.

Tyson management practically fell over itself trying to explain that the corporation hadn’t jettisoned Labor Day in favor of an Islamic holiday. That had not happened. Rather, what they had done was simply accommodate the wishes of the union membership at one single Tyson plant, namely, the Shelbyville facility. But the genie was already out of the bottle. The story had received national media attention.

They finally reached a compromise, maintaining that the whole thing had been a silly misunderstanding. Labor Day at Shelbyville was once again made a paid holiday—placating hardcore labor union aficionados and concerned citizens—and the plant’s Somalis were given the right to celebrate Eid al-Fitr by using a personal holiday—thus satisfying their right to religious worship. Crises averted.

Personally, as a second-generation non-Christian, non-believer, none of this makes any difference to me. I don’t give a rat’s ass who believes in what. While I would argue strongly for a person’s right to worship in the manner they choose, I place fanatical Christians, fanatical Jews, and fanatical Muslims all in the same sorry basket.

But there is a lesson here for Muslims living in America: If you want a job with decent wages, benefits and working conditions—and if you’re looking for an organization that will give you more than lip service when it comes to employee rights—you need to join a labor union.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at