By Kait Ecker
Friday October 9, 2020
In September, almost a dozen Somali workers complained about discrimination on the job. Business owner Tom Jacobson and mediator Cani Adan figured out how to get back to work. But first they had to talk—and listen.
Workers pose with mediator Cadi Adan (center) and Salad Makers Inc. owner Tom Jacobson (back row, center) at the end of their successful negotiation. Credit: Photo courtesy of Cani Adan
After asking for breaks and overtime pay, 11 Somali workers at Salad Makers Inc. found themselves out of work last month. The company cuts fresh produce for retailers like Cash Wise, PepsiCo, and US Foods, and employs some 44 employees at its facility in Moorhead, Minnesota.
The labor dispute was so knotty that the two sides couldn’t even agree on what propelled the 11 workers off the job. Management says they walked out and quit; the employees say they were fired. Ultimately, the workers alleged discrimination against their employer, and sought help from Moorhead Human Rights Commission member Cani Adan.
This is where the story took an unexpected–and hopeful–turn.
Labor disputes like these have become commonplace in Minnesota, as Somali and Muslim employees complain that their employers fail to respect their culture in the workplace. In recent years, workers at the Amazon warehouse in Shakopee have repeatedly asked for better working conditions, arguing that the giant firm doesn’t give them sufficient time to use the bathroom, much less to pray. These stories seldom lead to satisfying resolutions.
At Salad Makers Inc., the conflict began unfolding in a similar manner. The company’s owner, Tom Jacobson, arrived 30 minutes into an argument between the Somali workers and managers. The conflict had become more complex. Even with the help of an interpreter, the workers and ownership couldn’t seem to make any progress on the core issues. This is where Cani Adan entered the story.
Adan came to the United States in August of 2015 as an asylum seeker. In Somalia, he’d run a nonprofit called the Center for Peace and Human Rights. After arriving in Minnesota, he became involved with the Afro American Development Association and the Moorhead Humans Rights Commission. Here, he pursued his knack for mediation and helping others.
Jacobson’s family has owned Salad Makers since 1999, purchasing it after working in the produce distribution business for over four decades. The company cuts fresh produce to order, and packages it into ready-to-use servings. In the pandemic, the business has experienced growth. Its tamper-proof, sanitary packaging has won the company new clients like restaurants and schools.
While the mediation process wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing, the efforts paid off. The workers returned to work, with some of their requests met. And Salad Makers got back to making more salad.
The Sahan Journal caught up with Cani and Jacobson for the story of their peacemaking process. What lessons did they learn–and what advice would they give to people going through similar cultural conflicts in the workplace? We’ve edited their responses for length and clarity.
Could you walk us through the conflict between the Somali employees, and the leadership at Salad Makers Inc.? What were some of the problems and incidents that had come up?
As you know, in Somali communities and the Muslim community, they pray five times a day. And they came to my office complaining that they were not getting any breaks within that 13 hours that they work every day. And also some of them were complaining about when they work eight hours a day, after that, they have to work several hours of overtime.…
How did the Somali workers tell you they felt about these incidents and policies?
Of course they were feeling bad. Some of them said they were feeling like they were being discriminated against on the job site.
When they asked [Jacobson] to give them 15-minute paid breaks, he just opened the door and shouted, “Leave everyone.” And there was a manager who was there who said, “Let them leave, we will work,” or something like that.
Some of them have been working seven years, some more than seven years, some five years and three years. At a company that you have worked at for that long and you are not welcome in the company, you will feel that you are unwanted, of course.
Why did management ask you to get involved and help with the mediation?
As a leader of the American community, when I get complaints, I always reach out to companies to talk to them, to sit down with them.
I asked [Jacobson] to a mediation, and he said, “No.” He didn’t want to talk to me.
And the other day he called me, and he said, “Do you want to talk to me?” Still, he was mad.
I kept asking him, “Come down and let’s talk about this. Things can happen sometimes, let’s talk about the issue.”
He said he was going to talk to his lawyer. He wanted to know what he’s supposed to do.
Did you ever think that the two groups wouldn’t be able to come together—the workers and Salad Makers Inc.?
I had two meetings before we came up with the solution. But before that I never thought that we would come together, because the guy was way more not giving them any breaks, way more not giving them anything. He was all no, no, no to everything.
After I had two meetings with him, he just came to me and he was like, “Cani, they asked me for one 15-minute paid break. I’m going to give them two 15-minute paid breaks.”
I’m like, “Yes.” I mean, what I need is for them to get their rights. I don’t want one of them to complain all the time, I don’t want them to feed hate. So we all came together and we solved the problem.
Were there additional forms of religious or racial discrimination the workers brought to you?
Yes, they mentioned that. They were fighting for one or two 15-minute breaks to have time to pray. Every time that they wanted to pray, they could pray, but it’s their time. They had to punch out.
Also, managers were not respecting them. I’m glad that Tom, the owner of Salad Makers, talked to their managers in front of me. I was there. I talked to them, too, to make a peaceful environment for everyone to work together.
He told all the managers in front of me that not everyone has the same ideas as you do, and we need to respect each other.
Why do you think the owner and workers couldn’t communicate about these issues without the help of a mediator?
I would love you to ask Tom this question. I think mostly it’s because of a lack of communication. Because a lot of new Americans come to this country with no education background, and many of them have limited English.
And the other part is that I think Tom knows what they deserve. But he was not ready to give them the time. We all know that they’re working this many hours, and they need those breaks. I think he just realized he’s supposed to give them.
Do you think that you’ll be engaging in any type of follow-up with the workers and Salad Makers Inc. to make sure that the mediation is being done as planned?
Yes. Of course. I think this mediation is strong. Tom was down to do these things. He was very happy to see that we came up with this solution. And I think I will not have any more complaints.
But of course I would follow up if their mediation is kind of struggling or something else is going on.
How do you think someone should go about mediating conflicts to get people to work together and reach an understanding?
It’s very hard. Because when I tried to mediate, Tom just thought that I was standing with them. But I am just talking on behalf of them. And he was so mad, which means he shouted at me for two meetings. I remained calm, but it’s hard to do. It takes a lot of patience to do. It needs a lot of understanding to do.
We read all the time about different workplace conflicts at these facilities around the Twin Cities, at Amazon and places like that. What advice would you give to the workers and the management there?
My advice for the management is to understand employees. Employees are key for every company, to treat them well is to treat you well. It’s nice to know their culture, to respect their culture.
My advice for the employees is to be patient. When you see that something goes wrong, you need to address it. Talk to your manager, talk to your supervisor, and address the issue. Try to solve it. Everyone can be a leader.
You need to solve every situation that you can. If you cannot solve it, that’s fine. You know, there are other ways to go. But first, try to sit down with your managers, your employees, and your supervisors.
I need people to know that these employees’ rights were being violated because they don’t speak English and because they don’t even know their rights. I need every employee to understand their rights, to read the papers that they are signing.
There are people who are volunteering, nonprofit organizations, and social service agencies to help them and to make them understand what they are going to sign.
What are some key aspects of the negotiation you do in Moorhead on a regular basis?
I do negotiation because I always need things to be solved and for people to work safely together, regardless of where they come from and how they live their life. Generally in the Fargo–Moorhead area, there’s a lot of problems, of course. In the whole of America there’s problems—professional problems, communication problems, all that stuff.
Right now there’s so much division, it can seem impossible to mediate and come to an understanding. What do you think people can take away from your experiences?
You’re right, it’s hard to mediate now. We are so divided now. I need people to understand other people’s culture.
I came from Somalia and in Somalia we all look alike as a Somali people. We have one faith called Islam, and we have one language. I mean, in Somalia, I did not learn any diversity, because in Somalia we are not diverse.
But when I went outside of my country, I learned a lot about different people, and that’s why I learned to like different cultures and diversity. I believe now I understand everyone has culture. I respect everyone’s culture, and everyone’s culture is beautiful.
I came to this country five years ago. I understand the country and I understand how things work. So, my message is, I love peace. And since I was in Somalia, I was doing something called reconciliations, because back home sometimes clans fight with each other.
I want peace for everyone, and I will love everyone. One thing in Somali culture that we do is greeting your neighbor. It doesn’t matter who your neighbor is. When you love your neighbor, you greet your neighbor, you protect your neighbor. And if everyone does the same thing, then I’m sure we will be united. No more division.
Credit: Photo courtesy Tom Jacobson
How did the negotiation process go? I know that Cani had reached out, and initially maybe you didn’t want to engage in mediation?
Cani came in the next day, and wanted to rectify. The group had gone to him as a mediator. So he came in. We started out having a nice, nice visit. Things went well. It got to the point where I felt him kind of probing for answers that he kind of wanted–instead of the facts. I was a little concerned. We talked some more. And he left, and we agreed that he would call me the next day.
I went by myself and I met with the group. And I truly wanted to hear what they had to say and connect with the supervisors. That day I talked to each of them walking down the hall, and I asked, “What can I do? What’s going on?” And neither of them answered, they just had kind of a frustrated look.
So, I was really in the dark. What did they want? What did I do?
Cani and I had some discussions in the parking lot, and we agreed to get back into touch and discuss things. And I think it turned out very well at that point. The employees came up, and from what I ascertained and what I took away from that whole meeting, all they really wanted in the beginning was a 15-minute paid break every day.
I said, “I have to hesitate. I have to think with COVID and things if I can do that.” But unpaid breaks are any time you want.
The other thing that came out of these discussions is clearing up a misunderstanding. I told them I was semi-retiring August 1. And I was only going to come in a couple hours a day. And that they should go to our managers for daily concerns.
Unfortunately, with everything rolling out–that taking place, and their own jobs, and some new business–they didn’t get the same attention that we normally gave them. They felt alienated by me, because they wanted to talk to me and I didn’t understand that. I guess I should have listened better. I’m totally to blame on that. I should have been more attuned to that.
But at the same time I needed to know these things. Basically, they wanted to be able to come to me, instead of being cast off for bringing me issues. And they wanted me to give them a 15-minute break. I think those were really the two main points.
We talked about some other discussions and some things that we were very easily able to fix. It just took a little time. And at that point, I told them, they’re all welcome back to work the next shift if they wanted to. So I had asked them back. They’re good employees, nice people. And I really wanted them to be there.
I offered them two 15-minute paid breaks. And everything really went well at that point. Cani was instrumental in kind of getting everybody together. I think it was just the misunderstandings and changes that were taking place.
Once you got down to the truth of all this, It was very easy to rectify. It’s just unfortunate that it happened the way it did. But I’m also very happy about the result.
Just for some clarification, what led you to change your mind and allow Cani Adan to mediate the negotiations between you and the employees?
He didn’t have a business card. He wouldn’t give me really any information about him. And he’d called a couple of times again, without any information about really who he worked for or what agency he was with.… I just wanted to make sure I was talking to the right person. And I still didn’t get any clarification. I thought his name was Kenny instead of Cani and we weren’t getting that in writing or anything.
The main reason I was wanting to talk with him was to work with both parties trying to bring peace. Initially it was more about substantiating. There was some conflict. But Cani called back the next day and we came together. And we were able to negotiate the settlement.
I think it was good for the company. And I think it was good for the employees.
What were your biggest takeaways from the negotiation process?
I think it was fine. I think it could have been settled faster. I’m not positive it had to drag out that long. I learned to keep communication open with the employees, although issues would have been coming forward anyway.
But it did go to mediation and I think we had too many people involved right away. One interpreter came in with the list of demands. And then Cani got involved. It could have gone better. I think out of the whole situation, we’ve built trust. And I think we needed to be able to communicate better.
Communication is key. And I have to stay in touch with that no matter what. Go and say hi every morning, go and see what their needs are. I neglected to do that. Now we’ve rectified that.
How did you address the rest of your employees and managers about the issues that Somali employees had brought up?
I instructed them on the importance of communication. I talked with the management team. And we went through all the issues that were discussed. And I think that’s much better now.
Did you ever think throughout the process that you and the employees wouldn’t be able to come together to a resolution?
If it hadn’t been blown up as far as it had in that first half hour before I was involved, I would have been able to address the issues. It’s just opening up the lines of communication and making it comfortable for them to still talk with me.
And so I’m just thankful to have them. I’m glad we got them back.
What advice would you give to workers and management based on your successful negotiation experiences?
I would say always go for the truth. And try to talk to people as quickly as possible to really find out what’s going on. With any group or family, you just have to sit down and take the time and see what’s really going on.
The mediation was necessary in this situation because it had gotten to that point. But I think just having an honest discussion and seeing what the issues are. And then we have the shared goals. It’s a net worth, it’s a business thing where we need them as much as they need us. And it shouldn’t be a versus thing. It should be more of a let’s find out what works for everybody and do our best to make it happen.
Anything else that you think you’d like to add that you think people should know about from these experiences?
You can communicate with anybody if you’re willing to.