A Tyson Foods poultry processing center in Shelbyville, Tennessee, has granted a bold concession to its Muslim workers. Based on a contract signed in 2007, the plant will substitute Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan and falls on October 1 this year, for Labor Day as one of eight paid holidays on the company calendar.
Hundreds of the plant's 1,200 employees are Muslim and union officials make them a priority. "We in the labor movement have always understood that unions are only strong when we work to protect the dignity of all faiths, and that includes Muslims," said the union president. He asserted that this is the first time a paid day off has been obtained for a Muslim holiday.
Their success goes further:
The union also claimed that in addition to the observance of the Muslim holiday, "two prayer rooms have been created to allow Muslim workers to pray twice a day and return to work without leaving the plant."
"In addition to regular, non-paid breaks, all team members are allotted a seven-minute paid break," the Tyson spokesman said. "Some team members choose to pray during this time."
This aspect of the story is nothing new. Prayer facilities for Muslims are becoming more common in workplaces across the United States. A recent report explores these trends in the northern part of Texas, citing the implementation of quiet rooms at American Airlines, Texas Instruments, Nortel, and Electronic Data Systems.
Criticism has rained down on Tyson Foods, but the rhetoric often overlooks one essential fact: a private entity can do as it wishes, as long as it does not break the law. Like all employers, Tyson Foods knows that a happy worker is a productive worker, and the Shelbyville branch has done what it deems necessary to keep its employees happy. This private-sector case is very different than blatant accommodations to Islam in the public sector, such as the installation of footbaths for ritual ablution at a University of Michigan campus and the Kansas City International Airport.
Moreover, no evidence has been put forth to suggest that non-Muslims are grossly inconvenienced by Tyson's change in schedule. Though the holiday switch was inspired by Islam, all poultry processors get the day off, just as all employees at Texas Instruments presumably are allowed to use the quiet room.
Outraged consumers also have rights to exercise — like the right to not purchase Tyson products. Freedom works both ways in America and there is no shortage of companies selling chicken.
August 8, 2008, update: The union representing Tyson Foods workers at the Shelbyville plant has voted to overturn the contract provision replacing Labor Day with Eid al-Fitr. Employees will have both days off with pay in 2008. Starting next year, Labor Day will be on the list of paid holidays but Eid al-Fitr will not. Local political leaders were inundated with complaints and asked Tyson to reconsider the policy. Noting that "traditions like Labor Day have been under attack," the mayor and state legislators argued that "this time it's gone too far and we, as patriotic Americans, must draw our line in the sand." The company agreed and requested that the union change the holiday schedule, which it did with alacrity.