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Omaha.com: Compromise collapses, walkouts continue in Grand Island

BY TRACY OVERSTREET
THE GRAND ISLAND INDEPENDENT

Workers protest a compromise reached to accommodate prayer for about 500 Muslim meatpacking plant workers.
GRAND ISLAND – Amid a fourth day of walkouts at a Grand Island meatpacking plant, managers Thursday discarded a compromise designed to accommodate Muslim employees’ prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.

“It was a compromise that people thought would work for everyone. It didn’t,” said Dan Hoppes, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local No. 22. “Everything will go back to the way it was.”

The workday began Thursday with a majority of first-shift workers walking off the job at the JBS Swift & Co. meatpacking plant.

A total of 1,000 employees walked out during the first shift Wednesday and the second shift Thursday. A call to JBS Swift officials was not returned Thursday.

Hoppes said he and company officials met late Thursday morning with the nearly 500 Muslim workers, mostly from Somalia, but he wasn’t sure whether they would come back to work. The scrapped compromise would have moved employees’ dinner break to 7:45 p.m. – 15 minutes earlier than normal – in order to conduct a sunset prayer.

“We believe they’re going to come back to work, but we don’t know,” Hoppes said.

The counterprotest began Wednesday when more than 500 second-shift workers walked off the job to oppose the schedule change. Hoppes said only a handful of workers came to work, so the plant had to be shut down and all workers were sent home at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The plant reopened Thursday.

The counterprotesters, who are predominately non-Muslim, said they objected to an altered dinner break and work schedule that reduced their hours.

The counterprotesters also objected because of their suspicion that the Somalians were being paid for the two days they walked out of work.

But Hoppes said the emotions fueling the counterprotests are based on misinformation.

“The bad part of this is all the rumors,” Hoppes said.

Hoppes said Muslim workers who walked off the job were not paid for Monday and Tuesday. They did not receive a raise.

“In fact, they got reprimanded,” Hoppes said.

Also erroneous was the belief that a routine 15-minute break that usually occurred about 6 p.m. during the second shift would be divided into three five-minute breaks throughout the shift, Hoppes said.

The divided break was one that many counterprotesters believed would shorten their hours Mondays through Fridays and require them to work Saturdays in order to obtain a 40-hour work week.

Hoppes said JBS Swift had, in fact, offered to have second-shift workers leave early Mondays through Fridays in the event that they were too tired to work the longer period between an earlier dinner break and the end of shift. But if they wanted to work a full shift Mondays through Fridays, they are certainly allowed to, he said.

Hoppes said the full work force was not consulted about the earlier dinner break because it still fell within the union contract terms of a half-hour dinner between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m.

“This 15-minute change just snowballed and caused a problem,” Hoppes said.

As first-shift workers protested in the JBS Swift parking lot Thursday, second-shift workers showed support outside the company’s chain-link fence topped with razor wire.

Workers not at their posts were threatened with disciplinary action.

“The contract says no work stoppage, and they are violating the contract,” Hoppes said.

Counterprotester Veronica Yebra said management Thursday was telling workers to “get through the nine days” left of Ramadan and then the plant schedule would return to normal.

“I’m not upset with the Somalians,” Yebra said. “It’s the company – the decision. They gave in so easy. We have Hispanics and Vietnamese and Laotians. It affects all of us, and we want the same opportunity for everyone.”

Human resources spokeswoman Mary Chmelka approached the plant fence and spoke to second-shift protesters gathered outside the plant Thursday.

“I suggest you get a representative from every culture,” she said, issuing an invitation to a 2 p.m. Thursday meeting.

Hoppes said no such meeting occurred because counterprotesters refused to meet.

But the counterprotesters did have demands.

Donato Medina held a list hand-written in Spanish.

It included pay for days on strike, a raise, having equal break times, equal consideration for promotions, cleaning bathrooms strewn with water and paper, more parking and being treated with respect.

Sudanese protester Gatluak Wuol from the second shift wanted to distinguish his culture as being different from the Muslim workers from Somalia.

“We have a different religion. I’m Christian,” Wuol said. “We support this (the counterprotest) because we need equal rights.”

The whole situation left Hoppes bewildered.

“I don’t know what happened,” Hoppes said. “I think we have problems between races.”

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