Post-Postville: It’s About Worker Exploitation, not ICE

Rev. David L. Ostendorf • May 12, 2009

Had ICE been smart a year ago today, it would have claimed—with credibility—that it raided the Postville, Iowa Agriprocessors plant in order to save the workers it seized that infamous day. Postville and the 2008 ICE raid is not simply the story of failed immigration policy; it is the story of years of indifference to the exploitation of the nation’s low-wage workforce.

Long before the raid thrust Postville into the lexicon of the immigrant rights movement, Agriprocessors exploited its workforce with impunity. For years, fear, intimidation, injuries, short-pay, and under-age hiring characterized everyday life on the packinghouse lines. State and federal agencies responsible for enforcement of labor and safety laws were absent, indifferent, or simply lax. Many who rightly voiced outrage over the raid had not raised their voices over worker treatment at the plant that for years had gone relatively unnoticed, unspoken, and unchallenged.

In its early days, Agriprocessors held out the usual promise of jobs, economic development, and new taxes for its host community. The company also provided background for the lasting vision of American life—that peoples of profoundly differing backgrounds might live well together in harmony and community. In 2000 author Stephen Bloom portrayed that vision and its wrinkles in his book named after the town. Postville—the book and the documentary—told the storied cultural clash of Hasidic Jews as they entered community life in rural Iowa to open and operate a kosher packinghouse, and touched on the rising number of immigrants recruited to its jobs. But the stories of Postville’s Agriprocessor workers themselves went largely unnoticed until 2006.

In a courageous and hard-hitting series that year Nathaniel Popper of The Jewish Daily Forward described worker conditions at Agriprocessors in all their rawness, including wages beginning at $6.25 an hour. The Forward headline for May 26, 2006 read “In Iowa Meat Plant, ‘Jungle’ Breeds Fear, Injury, Short Pay.” The stories of worker conditions and abuse were appalling even to seasoned organizers, as were company efforts to undercut organizing efforts launched by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. In one vile flyer distributed to workers to dissuade them from organizing, the union was portrayed in a crude caricature of the devil.

Incensed by what they had read in the Forward, leaders of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly quickly took on the Postville plant management and its harsh and unjust treatment of workers. In bold strokes they began to challenge the company, develop new frameworks of support for its predominantly immigrant workforce, spread the Postville story through a national media campaign, and provoke discussion of a boycott of the company that produced the bulk of the nation’s kosher meat. They also began to develop a certification process that would compel kosher producers to adhere to a strict set of fair wage and benefits standards, as well as compliance with rigorous health and safety criteria.

The company continued its exploitative hiring and employee practices in spite of mounting pressure from Jewish leaders, and organizing efforts by the UFCW. Even in the aftermath of the May 2008 raid Agriprocessors recruited Latinos from Texas and California to work, in conditions that likely differed little from those faced by workers seized by ICE. Jon Tevlin of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported in late June that a homeless woman, along with African-Americans and whites were bussed in and, “promised $100 in advance, but few of them got it. So their first stop was the food shelf.” In December the New York Times reported a turbulent meeting of workers still attempting to get back pay from the company after it filed for bankruptcy, even as the community and its churches struggled to support those workers and their families who were compelled by the federal government to stay in Postville to testify against the company.

Today bankrupt Agriprocessors stands with 9,000 counts of child labor violations and millions of dollars in fines that will likely never be collected. Owners and mangers have been indicted. And workers and their families caught up in the ICE raid one year ago are still paying the price—for years of rampant exploitation by a renegade company that thought nothing of using them up.

Ironically, however, after two decades of such infamy Postville rings on the lips for the singular, one-day action of a federal agency that has still not, it must be said, been reigned in.

Postville is not about ICE; when you consider Postville don’t linger on the raid. Commit instead to justice with the hundreds of thousands of workers who continue to face conditions endured and exposed in that Iowa plant and community—and countless others across the nation—ICE or not.

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