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Tyson Foods Controversy: The Death of Good Intentions

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Tyson Foods Controversy: The Death of Good Intentions

On the one hand, the recent approval of a union contract at a Tysons Foods processing plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee to replace Labor Day on the holiday calendar with Eid-ul-Fitr, the holiday Muslims celebrate at the end of Ramadan, represented a triumph of democracy and religious accommodation. But after a predictable outcry, Tyson Foods reinstated Labor Day within a week and will allow employees a "floating holiday" instead of Eid-ul-Fitr in the future.

The original decision represented an isolated victory at best for Tyson's Muslim workers. By briefly pitting the two holidays against each other, it also represented a net loss for everyone else, including the broader Muslim community in the United States. Unfortunately some damage has already been done.

Taking away an iconic holiday such as Labor Day from workers in order to accommodate a Muslim holiday played right into the hands of those who trumpet this union contract as proof of a Muslim cabal to take over America. For Muslim Americans, Labor Day and Eid-ul-Fitr have never been mutually exclusive. With that implication, the blogosphere overflowed with vitriolic comments from incensed Americans.

While their frustration and displeasure are understandable, their xenophobia, of course, is not. This is partly why the Tyson union contract was such a set back for Muslims seeking to create a truly integrated presence within American society. The decision exposed a lack of will and creativity by all concerned to create a meaningful solution to the need to observe a Muslim holiday.

The need to take time off for Eid ul-Fitr and other religious holidays is nothing new. Muslims in the United States have been struggling with this challenge for at least 3 to 4 decades. Over time Muslims in workplaces across the country have struck reasonable accommodations that allow them to observe their religious duties without impinging on co-workers' rights.

They have achieved these accommodations through open and earnest dialogue with management and by leveraging increasingly supportive state and federal laws and regulations calling for reasonable accommodations of religious practices in the workplace, which is exactly how the final position of Tyson Foods ended up.

Still, some argue that since Christmas is a paid holiday it is only fair that other religious holidays have explicit paid time off for their holidays as well. That might be nice but it does not make business sense, and in the case of Tyson we are talking about a profit-motivated enterprise.

Most businesses make Christmas a paid holiday because it is a practical thing to do. Why incur overhead to keep an office open when most employees will take time off and when productively will be significantly lower than other days?

Similarly, if the majority of workers in a particular company were Muslim, then following the same business reasoning, that company might make Muslim holidays paid time off in lieu of Christmas and other traditional paid holidays. This is, in fact, the case with Muslim-owned businesses in the U.S. and it makes perfect sense in these circumstances.

Such is not the case in the Tyson plant. Although Muslims constitute only 20% of the labor force, nearly 80% of the workers union voted for the holiday switch. Is this necessarily proof that the workforce supports this move? Perhaps it is and perhaps it isn't.

The fact that the majority of union members voted for this contract did not, by itself, mean that these workers supported the Eid ul-Fitr provision of the union contract. The union contract has likely dealt with multiple issues and concessions. It is neither implausible nor unreasonable for union workers to vote for a contract that includes unfavorable terms so long as it is, on balance, a good deal.

But beyond this, the decision simply felt wrong. Labor Day is one national holiday that everyone can and does celebrate. Regardless of whether you are a Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Sikh or atheist, this holiday weekend marks the unofficial end of summer. It marks the end of white pants season. It is the last hurrah before the start of school and it heralds the beginning of football season. These are things that we can all come together around and enjoy.

While Muslim workers deserve to be given time off for their religious observances, it is obvious that we all need a lot more opportunities to bridge the differences that divide us.

By Junaid M. Afeef ISPU Research Associate

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