Muslim workers ponder next steps in Nebraska prayer dispute
Meatpacking company confirms 86 fired for taking unauthorized breaks
Hundreds of Muslim workers involved in a dispute over prayer breaks at a Nebraska meat-packing plant are set to meet Sunday to decide what to do next.
Dozens of workers were fired during a week marked by protests at the JBS Swift & Co. plant over break times to allow Muslims to pray at sunset.
The plant employs about 2,500 people, not including managers. About a fifth of them — mostly of Somali background — are Muslim.
Mohamed Rage, who leads the Omaha Somali-American Community Organization, said Saturday that workers at the plant wanted to hold another protest, but that he urged them not to.
Instead, Rage said, all the Muslim workers — including those no longer with the company because of the dispute — will meet Sunday to talk about a resolution.
On Monday, hundreds of Muslim employees walked off the job, saying they weren't being allowed to take a break to pray during Ramadan. Break times were then altered on the second shift so that Muslims could make their fourth of five daily prayers at sunset.
Non-Muslim workers walk out in counter-protest
That sparked counter-protests by non-Muslim workers who walked off the job Wednesday and Thursday, complaining that the arrangement amounted to preferential treatment.
Later Thursday, plant managers did an about-face, saying the new break times weren't working.
Rage said 80 Muslim workers were thrown out of the plant after an altercation late Thursday. When they tried to return for their shift Friday, they were fired, along with 70 other workers, he said.
Dan Hoppes, president of Local 22 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, described events differently.
He said that according to management and employees, 60 to 80 people quit late Thursday after raising the prayer issue and creating a commotion.
Hoppes said supervisors had told the workers to go back to work or leave, and they left.
JBS Swift has confirmed 86 firings, saying the employees were terminated for repeatedly leaving work without authorization.
The company said in a statement Friday that it's working to resolve the issue.
"JBS values its diverse workforce and has a long track record of making significant accommodations to employees," the statement said. "We work closely with all employees and union representation to accommodate religious practices in a reasonable, safe and fair manner."
With files from the Associated Press