August 4, 2008

I Too Was Looking for the Smoking Gun

I couldn’t help but observe the faces of the 20 or so rabbis from around the country that were part of a mission to the Agriprocessors plant in Postville last week. They had heard and read so much about the plant that they were expecting the worse. I have to admit that I too was on the lookout for any sign that perhaps justified some of the criticism against me that I had chosen to represent Agriprocessors. Like many of the rabbis who were there, I expected to find unsafe conditions, tormented and abused workers, and a plant that was “medieval” as one paper put it or a “Jungle” as the New York Times classified the plant in an editorial last week. But almost to a man, the reaction of the group was one of shock that a plant could be as maligned as it has been in the media. Each of us took the time to talk to employees from diverse backgrounds and all seemed happy with the working conditions, safety and pay scale. We saw an ultra modern plant, fully computerized and cleaner than most plants that I have visited (probably 100 or so in my lifetime). USDA officials who are present at every facet of production seemed to know nothing about underage workers, people with deformed hands working long hours, people not being allowed to go to the bathroom and so forth. That day I read Rabbi Morris Allen’s guidelines for Hekhsher Tzedek, a Conservative Jewish certification that the Orthodox and the certification agencies reject, and thought that what I and the group saw far exceeded his guidelines in every respect. “A blood libel,” yelled out one of the rabbis, when he saw the conditions at Agriprocessors.

Admittedly none of us were at the plant prior to May 12th, but underage workers? I discovered that the Iowa Department of Labor had sent in experts to find the under aged workers in February, some 3 months before the raid, and removed 2 who later turned out to be above 18. Yes, it was apparent that many new systems were put into place since May 12th. Illegal immigrants were ferreted out through an e-Verify system, posters advised workers of an anonymous hotline, and even shorter shifts, but most of what we saw certainly preceded the day of the raid. The beautiful clean plant was clearly not built in 8 weeks. The beautiful housing that Agriprocessors built for its employees as opposed to the shanty trailers rented to them by a city councilman could not have gone up in about 10 weeks, nor could the $12 million sewage treatment plant to protect the environment. I heard church officials and the mayor describe how wonderful the Rubashkin family was. I listened to officials now at the plant speak about the state of compliance, safety and worker’s relations. We were all impressed with the high kashrus standards. But most of all we wondered how these stories of abuse, safety, and working conditions ever saw the light of day. Said one official: “They play telephone in this town. A rumor is passed along and pretty soon it makes the newspapers and is accepted fact, so much so that the coveted New York Times, without ever stepping into the plant calls it a Kosher Jungle. Hard to believe that this could happen in America in 2008!