A consideration negotiated for unionized Tyson Food workers in 2007 set off familiar Islamophobic complaints that continued and reverberated for years afterward in highly charged disinformation narratives.
As part of a five-year contract between the company and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union that year, workers at the Tyson plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee were allowed to take the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr instead of Labor Day. According to the New York Times, a “furor” ensued as the occasion approached that August:
“You are a union that is proud of achieving a Muslim holiday and prayer room?” one person wrote the union. “A union in the U.S.A., a country based on Christianity. You call yourselves Americans? Have you forgotten 9/11?”
Another wrote: “You had no right to drop Labor Day. Muslim employees must integrate Labor Day into THEIR lives if they are going to live in America.”
The Times reported that hundreds of the Shelbyville plant’s workers were Muslims; there being no indication that other Tyson facilities would also begin recognizing Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic tradition in which Muslims practice a monthlong fast.
“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 union president Stuart Appelbaum. “What we negotiated was the will of the workers.”
The New York Times also reported that local workers often did not take Labor Day off prior to the new contract, since Tyson would offer a holiday premium for working that day.
But, as the Florida Times-Union would report years later, the backlash did not just spur social media threats of a boycott against Tyson and fearmongering posts about “Sharia law”; local elected officials at the time contacted the local newspaper to complain:
In a letter to the Times-Gazette, Bedford County Mayor Eugene Ray, Shelbyville Mayor Wallace Cartwright, Democratic state Rep. Curt Cobb and Republican state Sen. Jim Tracy said that substituting Labor Day “for a non-traditional holiday is unacceptable.”
“For over a hundred years, Labor Day has stood as a symbol to honor the working men and women of this country. But for the past few years traditions like Labor Day have been under attack. This time it’s gone too far and we, as patriotic Americans, must draw our line in the sand.”
Not long after the ginned-up controversy over the holiday shift, the union and Tyson agreed to reinstate Labor Day as a paid holiday while keeping the same status for Eid al-Fitr, which fell on October 1 in 2008.
“This wasn’t something imposed,” a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the Associated Press at the time .”It seems that this backtracking would be the result of the backlash from anti-Muslim hate (Web) sites and Islamophobes on the Internet.”
Despite the issue being settled, Tyson Foods released statements in 2013 and 2016 assuring social media users, “Tyson does NOT offer its workers a paid Muslim holiday at any location. In addition, Labor Day continues to be a paid holiday for all Team Members at the company’s U.S. plants.”
Update 8/29/2023, 2:46 p.m.: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag