Cargill found to be wrong

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Noelle Phillips

A Fort Mor­gan meat­pack­ing plant and the em­ployee union that rep­re­sented its work­ers vi­o­lated Mus­lim work­ers’ civil rights in a dis­pute over prayer breaks, a fed­eral agency that en­forces U.S. anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws in the work­place has de­ter­mined.

The U.S. Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion in­vited Cargill Meat­pack­ing So­lu­tions and Team­sters Lo­cal No. 455 to par­tic­i­pate in me­di­a­tion to re­solve the dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaint, ac­cord­ing to a copy of an Aug. 3 let­ter signed by El­iz­a­beth Ca­dle, district di­rec­tor of the EEOC’s Denver of­fice. A res­o­lu­tion could in­volve pay­ing the work­ers lost wages, restor­ing their ben­e­fits, re­turn­ing them to their jobs, and award­ing the work­ers money to pun­ish the com­pany and the union.

The EEOC ruled in fa­vor of 130 em­ploy­ees who filed com­plaints against Cargill and in fa­vor of 20 work­ers who filed com­plaints against the Team­sters, said Qu­sair Mo­hamedb­hai, who rep­re­sented the So­mali work­ers.

The EEOC de­ter­mined there was “rea­son­able cause” that Cargill had dis­crim­i­nated against the work­ers be­cause they were black, im­mi­grated from So­ma­lia and prac­ticed Is­lam.

The let­ters said Cargill had

sub­jected the Mus­lim em­ploy­ees “to a hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ment based on their re­li­gion, race and na­tional ori­gin, in­clud­ing mak­ing dis­parag­ing racial, eth­nic and re­li­gious com­ments and by re­quir­ing them to choose be­tween their re­li­gion and work.”

The Team­sters failed to fairly rep­re­sent the work­ers “by his­tor­i­cally fail­ing to pur­sue griev­ances on their be­half re­lat­ing to re­li­gious ac­com­mo­da­tion and by fail­ing to in­ter­cede, ad­vo­cate for or rep­re­sent” black, So­mali and Mus­lim em­ploy­ees, the let­ter ad­dressed to Lo­cal No. 455 said.

“This rul­ing shows how egre­gious the Team­sters union has been to­ward these Mus­lim em­ploy­ees,” Mo­hamedb­hai said. “The Team­sters read­ily ac­cepted the ex­pen­sive dues and, in turn, pro­vided zero ser­vices to these Mus­lim em­ploy­ees.”

It is rare for a la­bor union to be found in vi­o­la­tion of fed­eral civil rights laws, Mo­hamedb­hai said.

It is the sec­ond time the Team­sters union has run afoul of a fed­eral reg­u­la­tory agency for its re­sponse to the work­ers’ com­plaints against the com­pany.

In Oc­to­ber, the Na­tional La­bor Re­la­tions Board found the union had en­gaged in un­fair la­bor prac­tices when union lead­ers threat­ened and re­tal­i­ated against em­ploy­ees who ob­jected to pay­ing union dues af­ter the Team­sters would not in­ter­vene in a dis­pute over prayer breaks.

The la­bor re­la­tions board or­dered the Team­sters to cease and de­sist from threat­en­ing to pre­vent pro­mo­tions and in­ter­ro­gat­ing em­ploy­ees on their objections to union dues, the or­der said. The or­der also said Team­sters could not tell em­ploy­ees they would no longer re­ceive rep­re­sen­ta­tion for ob­ject­ing to union dues.

In De­cem­ber 2015, Cargill fired more than 150 Mus­lim work­ers, most of them from So­ma­lia, af­ter they walked off the job be­cause of a dis­pute over whether they should be al­lowed to take prayer breaks dur­ing their shifts.

The Team­sters did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment from The Denver Post.

Cargill is­sued a state­ment say­ing the com­pany was dis­ap­pointed by and dis­agreed with the EEOC’s de­ter­mi­na­tion.

“Cargill has pro­vided re­li­gious ac­com­mo­da­tion to Fort Mor­gan em­ploy­ees for many years and es­tab­lished des­ig­nated re­flec­tion ar­eas there in 2009,” the state­ment said. “Our pol­icy has not changed, and based upon the facts, we are con­fi­dent in our po­si­tion. Cargill em­ploy­ees at Fort Mor­gan come from many coun­tries, and ev­ery­one work­ing at the plant has ac­cess to re­li­gious ac­com­mo­da­tion un­der our pol­icy.”

The state­ment did not say whether the com­pany would par­tic­i­pate in me­di­a­tion with the EEOC. In­stead, com­pany of­fi­cials wrote, “We look for­ward to con­tin­u­ing a di­a­logue with the EEOC to bet­ter un­der­stand the ba­sis for their ini­tial de­ter­mi­na­tion.”

While Cargill in­sists it of­fered a place for its work­ers to pray, the EEOC’s rul­ing is the sec­ond time work­ers have pre­vailed in their com­plaints against the com­pany.

A year ago, the Colorado la­bor depart­ment ruled the fired work­ers were en­ti­tled to un­em­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion be­cause the com­pany had forced them to choose be­tween their jobs and their re­li­gion. The pay­ments to those work­ers were es­ti­mated to cost nearly $1 mil­lion.

Dur­ing hear­ings held by the la­bor depart­ment, mul­ti­ple em­ploy­ees said the prayer pol­icy had changed on Dec. 15, 2015, with­out warn­ing. Pre­vi­ously, they had been al­lowed prayer breaks, although work­ers of­ten had to take turns so the meat pro­cess­ing line re­mained op­er­a­tional.

Af­ter the pol­icy changed, Mus­lim lead­ers in Fort Mor­gan at­tempted to ne­go­ti­ate with Cargill, but the com­pany stood by its poli­cies. The work­ers chose to go home, and af­ter three days they were fired, ac­cord­ing to pre­vi­ous re­ports.

The Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Is­lamic Re­la­tions is­sued a state­ment Wed­nes­day prais­ing the EEOC’s de­ci­sion in fa­vor of the Mus­lim work­ers.

Cargill and the Team­sters have 14 days af­ter the re­ceipt of their let­ters to ac­cept the in­vi­ta­tion to par­tic­i­pate in me­di­a­tion.

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