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Star Tribune

Where are the Muslims in the Workforce?

With over 3 Million in our workforce why aren’t they organized?

Mohammed Sarker's picture
Aug 14, 2019

On February 2017, President Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO and Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff made a joint statement condemning Islamophobia. Even more interesting than the actual statement was the fact that Mr. Yussuf was the first Muslim as well as the first person of color to lead the CLC, the Canadian equivalent to the AFL-CIO, which had me thinking, why aren’t there more Muslims in the American Labor Movement?

As of right now, there are about 3.45 million Muslims in the U.S. That community is growing by about 100,000 people every year. By 2040, this population is expected to double, which indicates a potential honeypot of membership for organized labor. Most reports on Union membership lack a category for religion, implying that Muslim participation in Labor Unions is much lower than that of Christians. To a degree, this makes historical sense, the majority of Muslim immigration occurred after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished racial quotas for immigration. As a result, Muslims have been in America for a far shorter time than the other Judeo-Christian religions and don’t necessarily have the “cultural foothold” to participate in civic organizations like unions. In addition, many Muslims are probably unsure about joining a union on religious grounds since many, especially new immigrants, arrive from a conservative background that may take issue with union’s progressive politics.

Historically speaking, Islamic Clerics tended to be skeptical and even outright anti-union. This stemmed from a fear of Communist Subversion, which they viewed as an existential threat. To look at religious parallels, Catholic participation in Unions dramatically increased in the decades after Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which declared the right for workers to join unions. Islam doesn’t have a central authority like a Pope, but it is still possible and necessary for unions to work with local Muslim religious leaders (Imams) in order to highlight the benefits of collective bargaining.

It is imperative that Unions tackle the unique issues facing Muslims, for example, Islam requires that Muslims pray 5 times a day at specific times, which often correlate with the workday. There are countless instances of Muslims being denied the right to have time to pray, such as in 2015 when Cargill Meat Solutions had to pay a $1.5 million settlement to 138 Somali-American Muslim workers who got fired for walking off the job in protest of being unable to receive accommodations to pray.

The Cargill Meat Solutions workers were affiliated with Teamsters Local 455, which was charged with a rare civil rights violation for not pursuing a grievance regarding the above issue. We don’t have all the facts of the story, but there’s a good chance that the Union’s failure to pursue grievances stemmed from ignorance of Islamic customs rather than deliberate malice. Regardless this incident provided political cover to the Council on American-Islamic Relation’s resistance to a 2017 unionizing drive. If we’re going to effectively launch recruitment for Muslims into labor, it’s imperative that we understand and advocate for their ability to fulfill their religious needs even on the job.

“Some low hanging fruit that a Union could negotiate in a contract would be: a Muslims right to pray during specified times, staff that understands languages spoken by Muslims (almost half of Muslims are immigrants), accommodations for workers fasting in observance of Ramadan, as well as offering “halal” (think kosher for Muslims) food options whenever possible.”

 These aren’t trivial demands, which is why it’s important that Internationals determine which locals contain substantial Muslim membership AND work in areas with a large Muslim population (typically the Northeast United States and the upper Midwest in a city like Minneapolis), in order to better maximize the effectiveness of a recruiting campaign.

Muslims in America are an extremely heterogeneous group with no majority ethnicity, with the largest percentage being black Muslims at 20%. As a result, any serious organizing drive will have to avoid “one size fits all solutions” and tailor their campaign to their specific region and workplaces. Organizing Somalis is going to be dramatically different from organizing Arabs to organizing Southeast Asians. The upfront investments will be great, but so are the returns: the ability to gain the “hearts and minds” of the fastest-growing religion in the United States. 

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