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.

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out