August 11, 2008

How the UFCW duped the Jewish community into becoming its agents

As the head of the PR firm that represents Agriprocessors, I poured over many documents the other day to make sense of the continued vendetta against the glatt kosher meat and poultry processor. I especially felt the urge to do a bit more probing following my visit (along with some 25 rabbis) to Postville on July 31st where I and the other visitors left with the feeling that something smells here, and it wasn’t the meat. What we saw was a clean, well-run plant with many happy employees. So here’s my theory on why the Agriprocessors just refuses to go away:

I believe that the event that triggered the onslaught against Agriprocessors was the infamous PETA video back in 2005 that allegedly showed the abuse of some animals, albeit that it was never flagged by the USDA, which supervises every aspect of production. While the plant was never shut down by the government, the company called in experts and made significant improvements in the months that followed, all of which are plain to see. This occurred at about the same time that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) had lost large amounts of its members over a period of several years. It had not succeeded in getting the management of Agriprocessors to agree to come under its wings and the company’s membership also did not seem enthusiastic, as was evidenced by at least one vote. The UFCW also had its share of problems with other large livestock companies, namely Smithfield Foods, and it was even at loggerheads with the mega Wal-Mart chain that also refused to come under its umbrella.

The reaction to the PETA video by the Jewish community was music to the UFCW leadership. Jews, led by the secular media, most notably the Forward, historically a left-leaning Labor Yiddish publication that eventually became an English-language weekly, were outraged. Taking the high moral ground, they were prepared to throw Agriprocessors, which had already been vilified in a book by Steven Blum and in other media for its Chasidic invasion of an Iowa hamlet, to the dogs. Even the Orthodox appeared lame in their defense of Agri. The UFCW probably could not believe their luck that Agri was essentially without a strong base. For the first time in a long time they found a powerful ally, a group that also had the ear of the American media, that would help them win, and win they must. What followed was a series of Forward articles charging abuse of workers and the unofficial creation of a new coalition that included the Forward, the St. Bridget’s Church in Postville, and a group of Conservative rabbis led by Rabbi Morris Allen of Minneapolis. For a while the UFCW did its own dirty work, placing ads in Jewish newspapers and even making electronic phone calls that an OSHA report of gross violations amounting to $182,000 showed that the kosher food produced by Agri was not safe (the violations and fines were subsequently reduced and the fines totaled $42,000). Then came the departure of Khal Adath Jeshurun as one of the main kosher certifying agencies at Agri, which (while a business decision, as KAJ itself said) again became the basis for an ad campaign and the calls to Jewish households in many Orthodox neighborhoods. They were told that KAJ left because they did not trust the kashrut.

The UFCW ultimately had followed its own manual (outlined in a lawsuit by Smithfield against the UFCW) in getting the grassroots to fight the battle on their behalf. The Forward and by now a whole slew of other press were pouring it on, so much so that Agriprocessors was ultimately referred to as a “Medieval plant” and a “kosher jungle” in major media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The May 12th raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was a bonanza that the Unions could only gloat on. The affidavit that accompanied the raid included some ridiculous accusations of drug manufacturing and bomb-making and it quoted the Forward, almost unprecedented for a government agency to support such a document. The scope and brutal nature of the raid were attacked by none other than the New York Times, amongst others, that questioned the immigration policies of the Bush Administration. What followed was almost choreographed. St. Bridget’s would release names of minors to the local Iowa media with graphic details of abuse, the Forward and often the JTA (which did ultimately make an attempt to present a fair and balanced picture) would keep up its attacks, Rabbi Allen would push his Heksher Tzedek to stress that Agriprocessors could not be trusted in its treatment of animals and workers, all to the delight of UFCW officials who were by now convinced that Agriprocessors was on the cusp of either caving in to a Union that would save them or shut down altogether, delivering a powerful message that UFCW will not be intimidated, even if you are Smithfield or Wal-Mart. The victory seemed at hand. All that was still needed was an indictment by the Feds in the aftermath of the May 12th raid.

Strangely, I watched some of this unfold after the positive media coverage of the visit of the 25 rabbis on July 31st which followed a similar visit by Sue Fishkoff of the JTA, with essentially the same positive findings. We saw a new willingness to tighten up all compliance and credible officials who were put in charge. Only days after the visit, the Iowa Department of Labor (headed by a Commissioner who is a former Union official) recommended to the Iowa Attorney General that he indict Agriprocessors for employing 57 minors. Ironically, the Department did its own audit in April ‘08 and found none. It refused to give Agri attorneys the names of minors, if any, so that they can follow their policy of firing underage workers. Agri, in fact, fired four underaged workers in its sausage department when it became aware of their ages. When Agri explained this to the media, a reporter found three new underage workers, but the information most likely again came again from the Church, where many of the immigrants and their families hung out for assistance and where they were allegedly feeding the St. Bridget officials with inflammatory information implicating one another, particularly Agriprocessors. When it wasn’t underaged workers, it was that the company was employing the homeless and most recently Somalis. The UFCW smile must have grown from day to day, particularly after a march on July 27th captured national attention. Their surrogates were doing a great job.

In the meantime, shortages of kosher meat and poultry persisted and prices went sky-high, all because the moralists and ethicists in the Jewish community never suspected that they were being duped by a ferocious union into becoming their agents. History will yet judge this strange episode in American-Jewish history as one of the Union’s finest moments and perhaps the Jewish community's lowest. I certainly have gained a great deal of respect for the Union, while questioning so many in the Jewish community. What a shame! (All that remains is for an investigative reporter with courage to put the pieces together.)