Photo Credit: Rabbi Hanoch Teller

The desire to build a social justice program with a huge lucrative potential required an appalling trigger. As reporter Debbie Maimon portrayed in Yated Ne’eman, Agri seemed to fulfill this need, and they had the full cooperation of The Forward newspaper. Something should have happened when their supposed villain was exonerated in court. The dismissal of all human rights violations should have lowered the volume against Agri’s atrocities, prompting the organization to move on to a different bête noire in kosher production, but it never did!

To bolster her claim of Magen Tzedek’s unsubstantiated slander, Maimon cited the fact that Rabbi Allen led a commission of inquiry into Agri’s violations as cited in The Forward. Eager to clear Agri’s name from The Forward’s allegations (all of which were based on unnamed employees) the plant’s chief executive, Shalom Rubashkin, welcomed the group and personally guided a tour of the facility.

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Subsequent to this meeting Rabbi Allen wrote Rubashkin a personal letter in August, 2006 thanking him “For the time you and your staff spent with us last week. All of us were impressed with the consideration shown us… You have much to be proud of as regards the production of Kosher meat,… the commission’s members were impressed by the Rubashkins’ contributions to Postville and encouraged by their commitment to making Agri a plant where the values displayed on your website are able to be lived out fully.”

Maimon also quoted[i] an additional letter from Allen to Rubashkin in December, 2006 praising him for being accessible and approachable to his workers. In neither of these letters, nor in subsequent correspondence, does Morris Allen voice concern regarding the inhumane treatment of employees or inacceptable working conditions as luridly portrayed in The Forward’s reportage[ii]. And yet, and yet… he surely cried foul when he wasn’t speaking to Rubashkin!

Independent of The Forward and Magen Tzedek which had formed an alliance, there was one more factor that would bring about the folding of Agriprocessors and what in effect would be a life sentence for Shalom Rubashkin.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is a no-nonsense, take no prisoners union with 1.3 million members. When they go after something: be it worker’s rights, or the right to represent workers, they wield enormous power. Many would not dare to cross them, but the Rubashkin family that owned Agriprocessors were determined not shift the reins of their private enterprise to a controlling union.

Alas, the Rubashkins against the UFCW, is what is referred to in basketball parlance as an un-even matchup. Surely, the family did not know this in 2005 when the UFCW attempted months on end[iii] to unionize the plant. Initially the union employed the traditional methods by promising workers higher pay, better conditions, vacations, medical benefits and discounts.

This methodology did not gain traction at Agri, so the Union went for the jugular, more delicately referred to as a “Corporate Campaign.” The union exerts pressure on companies to refuse to do business with non-unionized companies. Trader Joe[iv], for example, is one chain that stopped carrying Agri products in compliance with Union demands.

The Corporate Campaign is fundamentally a War of Attrition[v] whereby the plant either surrenders to unionization, or is forced to shut down. The union comes to battle with vastly superior fire power, time-tested strategy and cognizance of what they stand to lose.

The UFCW website explains, “Think about this – for those of us who work in a “Right to Work” state [like Iowa], our power at the bargaining table is measured by the number of union members in our plant… For those of us who work in a union shop state, our power at the bargaining table is determined by how many plants in our area is union vs. non-union. Each time we go to negotiate a contract, the company points to the non-union plant down the road – or across the state line – as competition. If those plants were union, it would be a completely different story.”

(To be continued)

Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!

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[i] ibid

[ii] Noted scholar, Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union (OU) Kosher Division also led a group of Orthodox rabbis and laymen to the plant. Their findings were published and contradicted The Forward’s report, and praised Agriprocessors for safety.

[iii] Yated Ne’mean June 5, 2013

[iv] Interview with Rubashkin family on July 8, 2015

[v] Ibid

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