Navajo in the work place

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Oct 21 15:41:25 UTC 2002

New York Times, Editorial, October 18, 2002

Protecting Navajos at Work

    At RD's Drive-In, a small family-owned diner in northeast Arizona,
most of the employees and customers are Navajos.  Two years ago the
owners, who don't speak Navajo, decreed that, "while the owner is paying
you as an employee, you are required to use English at all times"  except
to non-English-speaking customers. When two Navajo employees refused to
agree to the new policy, arguing that they had every right to speak Navajo
between themselves and while on break, they say they were fired an
allegation the diner disputes. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
has filed a lawsuit on the employees' behalf, arguing that they were
victims of an "unlawful retaliation." It is the first lawsuit filed by the
government protecting Native Americans' rights to speak their own language
on the job. It should send a strong signal that federal civil rights laws'
provisions on "national origin" can be used to protect Native Americans
and their cultures.

Lawyers for RD's maintain that the diner's actions were legal, balancing
the interests of the Navajo-speaking employees against those of the owners
for a harmonious workplace. According to the diner's management, Navajo
workers routinely spoke about other employees in their own language. It is
hard to imagine that some employees' or managers' fears of being gossiped
about in a tongue they couldn't understand could be sufficient grounds for
discriminating against employees whose first language may not be English.
Plenty of Americans talk about their colleagues behind their backs without
needing a different language to do so.

Arizona has long been at the forefront of nationwide efforts to make
English the country's official language. The pitch, usually in reaction to
immigration from Mexico and points south, tends to go something like this:
"You've come to our land, so you'd better learn our language." That makes
the federal government's objections to "English only" rules on behalf of
Navajos rather poignant. After all, we've come to their land.

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