Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Post Postville

Last night I had the unfortunate experience of viewing a PBS report on the legacy of Agriprocessors. What I saw was utter devastation. For the illegal immigrants and their families; for the native towns people; for the Jewish merchants whose ancillary businesses served the entire community; and of course for the Rubashkin family.

Postville is a very small Midwestern town in Iowa of about 2000 people. Until The Rubashkin family arrived, it was pretty much headed for extinction. But when the Rubashkins bought an abandoned meat-packing facility for the purpose of creating and distributing Kosher meat products the town was not only resuscitated - it blossomed and even flourished.

Everybody in that town benefited from the Rubashkin enterprise. What these Lubavitch Chasidim succeeded in doing was creating the largest meatpacking house and distributorship of Kosher meat products in the United States. They distributed their products all over the world at very reasonable prices. It revolutionized the Kosher food industry - creating a truly competitive business environment. And it enabled smaller communities that were un-served by the Kosher industry to have a fresh supply of Kosher meat.

This was as American a success story as one could imagine. I wish I could end it right there. But as just about everyone knows by now, what started out as an outrageous success, ended up as an unmitigated disaster – a tragedy for just about all concerned.

I think it might be interesting to take a step back and analyze just what happened - what exactly went wrong. Obviously there are so many factors that have gone into this that it would be impossible to pinpoint the exact point of demise. There are probably also a lot of things that happened that will we never even know about.

Here is pretty much the timeline off the top of my head. It began with a book: Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, by journalist Stephen G. Bloom. Mr. Bloom took a critical look at the Rubashkins. Although entirely crediting them with the towns revitalization there were niggling cultural issues that persisted from the very beginning.

The townspeople were extremely grateful to the Rubashkins but they found them standoffish and un-neighborly. The Lubavitch community in Postville started growing very quickly. But it was completely insular showing very little interest in the rest of the town or its people other than some formal niceties. Their customs and manner of dress were very strange looking to small Midwestern townspeople most of whom probably never met a Jew before the Rubashkins came to town. So there was a sort of uneasy tension between the Jews and non Jews in the town from the start.

Then came some investigative reporting on the part of the Forward about the way immigrant workers were being mistreated. This was in the light of an attempt to unionize them which the Rubashkins successfully opposed. I don’t know how true some of the more serious charges of workers abuse were, but the Rubashkin reputation started to decline.

The animal rights activist group PETA followed suit with an expose of their own about the mistreatment of the animals in the way they were slaughtered. A video was secretly made which was pretty shocking to say the least. Again, I don’t know if that was a fair assessment of their Kosher slaughtering methods. Perhaps the video was just an anomaly and misleading. But it left a pretty bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

There were two major consequences to all of this as I recall. The Conservative Movement came out with their Tzedek Hekhsher – which was an attempt to add a layer of supervision about standards in employee treatment on top of the actual Kashrus Hechsher given by Hashgacha agencies like the OU.

The second significant thing that happened is that one of the premier Hechsher organizations, KAJ, decided withdraw their Hechsher. If I understand correctly, the OU was considering doing the same. (Rubashkin products had both organizations there supervising their Kashrus.)

Then came the ‘bomb’! I don’t know for sure whether all the problems mentioned so far precipitated or even contributed to it, but US immigration authorities raided Agriprocessors in 2008 and arrested over 400 illegal immigrants who worked there. It was supposedly the largest violation of immigration laws in US history.

This happened in the midst of a national debate over illegal immigration that was consuming congress, various opposing advocacy groups, and of course the media. It was the hot topic of the day (and still is). The Bush administration decided to clamp down heavily on illegal immigration.

Accusations included some really horrendous activity - including helping to provide forged immigration documents for the workers, violation of child labor laws, working under dangerous conditions which (if I recall correctly) resulted in a loss of 12 year old girl’s finger. There were accusations of sexual abuse and even accusations of about a ‘Meth lab” right on the premisis. There were also general accusations of mistreatment of these illegal immigrants who supposedly kept quiet about it for fear of losing their jobs and being deported.

How many of these accusations are true remain a mystery. But there was enough noise and credibility to at least some of them to effect Agriprocessors business. They started losing money.

The CEO of Agriprocessors, Shalom Rubashkin, desperate to save his business secured a bank loan to the tune of 26 million dollars - under false pretenses. He nonetheless made timely payments plus interest to the bank until he was forced to shut down. Thus his payments stopped and he defaulted on the loan.

He was tried for bank fraud and convicted. He is now awaiting sentence and a new trial is pending on violation of Iowa's child labor laws.

One has to wonder what was accomplished here. I do not see any winners at all. The poor illegal immigrants only wanted to somehow survive. Their financial circumstances back home in Guatemala was so dire that the only solution they saw was to sneak across the US border to find work. At seven dollars per hour they were making a fortune compared to the six dollars per day they had made back home. They were sending money home to their families just to prevent them from living in the streets!

The once flourishing town of Postville was devastated financially by the immigration raid. 400 people thrown out of work and now unable to contribute to the local economy in a town of 2000 people is a financial earthquake to them. The non Jewish merchants were suffering as were the Jewish mechants. No one was making a living there now. The new owners of Agriprocessors (now called Agri Star) have not been able to reconstruct the former prosperity. Everyone involved there lost.

One can I suppose lay all the blame for this at the feet of the Rubashkins. Had they done things properly from the start, none of this would have happened. But I can’t help but blame the government here too. They took a thriving town and destroyed it. The motives seemed to have more to do with immigration politics than justice.

Had they overlooked the illegal immigration violations which was pretty much standard practice until recently - and let these people work, no one would have been hurt. Legal residents here do not want those jobs. They currently remain unfilled. The people who were happily willing to work for 7 dollars per hour are now without jobs many of whom have been deported with very few prospects for the future.

I’m not saying that Rubashkin is blameless. He bears plenty of responsibility here. But as I have said many times I think he has suffered enough. He and his family continue to suffer, and potentially may suffer way out of proportion to the crime he was convicted of.

Was any of this worth it? Is there any plus at all from all of this – the exposes; the immigration raid; the trial? Has America gained? Is the immigration problem now one step closer to solution as a result of it? Is the Jewish community any better off? Are the poverty stricken illegal immigrants or their families any better off? Are the citizens of Postville any better off? Has justice ultimately been served in any real sense of the word? I think the answer to all of these questions is no.