The saga of the destruction of America’s largest kosher meat packing plant, occurred, ironically, in a region where pigs outnumber humans 5-1. In the heart of this expanse is Postville, Iowa in the north-east corner of the state, not far from the Minnesota border. This markedly non-metropolis boasts an entrance sign, “Hometown to the World.” A rather august motto for a village without a stop light or national chain store.
Departing to Postville from either Chicago or Minneapolis would have the traveler, within a few scant hours, nearly lost to (urban) civilization. This is the land of Iowa’s rolling hills, where there are Band-Aid colored pigs, cows meandering with lazy industry, and sheep baa-ing out a chain letter from bluff to bluff. Rising beneath Iowa’s eye-blue sky are soaring steeples, usually atop Lutheran Churches, to remind the farmers Whose land they till.
Seemingly no different than any other Iowan rural community; Postville is home to roughly 2000 souls. Now there’s a nifty, four-letter package swarming with resonance. “Home.” A place to go to, come back to, a safe place, a warm place. Yet in May of 2008, the place was about as warm as a cold sore.
The issues did not occur overnight, as problems usually metastasize more than they fester. And just like there is a school of historians that suggest that WWII was consequential to WWI and refer to that entire period as the Thirty Year War; the same has been advanced regarding Postville’s implosion in 2008. It did not begin, they argue, with an immigration raid on a clear May day, but germinated two decades earlier.
In 1987 Aaron Rubashkin the Jewish butcher from Brooklyn who has his mother’s washboard framed in his office to remember his humble beginnings, decided to set up shop in Postville. His eyes were set upon the Hygrade meatpacking plant located just outside Postville. This slaughterhouse shut down in the early 1980s when it could no longer compete with the larger and more profitable plants.
Rubashkin’s idea was financially sound. A kosher slaughterhouse located in Iowa would have easy access to Midwest beef and poultry that was cheaper to feed and raise than livestock in and around New York. Such a plant would also be better suited to accommodate customers on the West Coast.
Furthermore, Postville, like many Iowa towns, was hard hit by the Midwest farm crisis in the 1980s. Small farms folded at a disquieting rate as banks foreclosed on family farms[i], businesses shuttered and people moved out.
Iowa is a right-to-work state[ii], meaning workers do not have to join a union to work in a plant, a decided advantage to Rubashkin – or any employer – who wished to capitalize upon lower-paid, nonunion workers. Postville, in 1987 seemed to have caught a lucky break with the Rubashkin decision to revitalize the slaughterhouse. Such an operation would necessitate local employment, increase property values and rejuvenate a town that was boarding up.
At least, such was the theory.
The new Rubashkin meatpacking plant, renamed Agriprocessors (informally known as Agri), was a family business. This is unusual as the big packers are usually owned and operated by huge corporations. The modus operandi of a large corporation creates a massive bureaucracy that protects itself[iii]. If responsibility is distributed among many players, then if there is a problem, no sole individual will take the blame.
This is not the way the House of Rubashkin operated. Aaron Rubashkin’s son, Shalom, was brought in 1992 to run the day-to-day operations of the family business. He had no previous business experience appropriate to prepare him to run what would become the leading kosher meat producer in the country.
Corporate experience is just one aspect of a business, which is one of the most dangerous occupations in America.[iv] Slaughtering, cutting, hauling and packing thousands of animals a day, is a grimy, bloody, arduous, violent, dehumanizing and smelly enterprise. Injuries are commonplace and hazards abound from butcher knives to sawing devices to corrosive cleaning chemicals and extremely ear-unfriendly machinery. Fatigue is a killer. The gear worn in a meatpacking plant is a cross between the attire worn in a construction site and that on a battlefield.
The exceptionally high turnover rate among meatpacking workers, between 75 percent to 100 percent a year, has no parallel. This means there is a constant churn of new workers who are obviously more prone to accidents than a skilled and stable work force.
(To be continued)
Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!
[i] Postville p 45
[ii] Postville, U.S.A. p 17
[iii] Postville U.S.A. p 164
[iv] Postville, U.S.A. p 14