Workers at Kosher Plant Urged To Steer Clear of Union ‘Devils’

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 18, 2006, issue of August 18, 2006.
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Already facing scrutiny over its treatment of workers, the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse is being accused of distributing a leaflet that warns its employees against the return of “union devils,” and of telling workers not to get “tricked into signing a card for the Union.”

The pamphlet, which came with a Spanish translation, was handed out in a meeting at the end of July, according to union organizers who have been in Postville, Iowa, the home of AgriProcessors, for the past month and a half.

The company did not respond to questions about the leaflet.

The alleged meeting took place a week before a task force from the Conservative synagogue movement traveled to Postville to investigate working conditions at the AgriProcessors plant.

Father Floyd Paul Ouderkirk, the priest at the Catholic church in Postville, said that the company engaged in a campaign to convince workers not to speak with either the union or the Conservative movement’s task force. Ouderkirk says workers told him that AgriProcessors held meetings in which the company threatened to dismiss employees who spoke negatively about the company to outsiders.

Union leaders echoed that claim; they also alleged that while the Conservative task force was in town, the company performed “surveillance” on workers who spoke with the rabbis and has since interrogated some of those employees.

“To listen to the bully and thug tactics of these jokers — it’s unreal,” said Carl Ariston, a top official with the United Food and Commercial Workers, Region 6. Ariston was in Postville last week.

Mike Thomas, a spokesman for AgriProcessors, denied that the company had threatened employees or that it had done anything to hinder the work of the task force, which was headed by Rabbi Morris Allen, co-chair of the social action committee of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“Rabbi Morris Allen and his colleagues visited AgriProcessors last week and we were happy to host them, show them the plant, give them an opportunity to meet Agri’s employees, and talk with them about meeting the needs of their congregations,” Thomas wrote in a statement. He added, “Agri’s employees have the right to speak with whomever they wish, just like anyone else, and they have been and always will be free to exercise that right.”

The Conservative task force was in Postville for two days last week. Members of the task force said they would have no comment until they have a chance to review their findings.

The task force was formed after a Forward investigation uncovered widespread discontent among the workers at AgriProcessors, many of whom are Hispanic immigrants. The company sells its kosher meat under the label “Aaron’s Best.”

Industry experts told the Forward that wages paid to workers at AgriProcessors are among the lowest in the slaughterhouse industry, despite the premium price at which AgriProcessors sells its kosher meat. Several workers at the plant also told the Forward that they received virtually no safety training, which they said contributed to accidental amputations and other health problems. The company has said that it provided adquate safety training.

Soon after the newspaper report, the plant was visited by an Orthodox rabbi from Minnesota who provides kosher certification for some of the company’s meat. That rabbi said the workers he met with were happy.

The union had led an effort to organize the plant in 2005, but that drive never reached a vote. After the Forward report, organizers returned to Postville, a town of 2,500 where some 800 are employed by AgriProcessors.

Union organizers say that in meetings at the plant on July 26 and 27, workers were given the leaflet with a headline across the top declaring, “Those Union Devils Are Back in Town.” Below the headline, it warned workers to “be on the lookout for Union agents.” It also stated, “Say no to the Union when they come around.”

Such warnings would not violate labor laws unless workers are threatened with retribution, according to legal experts.

Ouderkirk, the priest, and Ariston, the union organizer, say that during those July meetings, workers were told that if they spoke with outsiders they would be punished.

The Catholic church hosted one day of the task force meetings, and Ouderkirk says he saw AgriProcessors supervisors outside the church, watching the proceedings.

“They were very curious about exactly who was attending these meetings,” Ouderkirk said.

After the meetings, Ariston said, workers told the union that they were called in and questioned by the company.

When asked about the allegations, Thomas, the AgriProcessors spokesman, said, “It’s a shame … that someone seems to want to play politics with Rabbi Allen’s group’s visit by making ridiculous allegations about AgriProcessors.”

Ouderkirk said that one immediately positive outcome of the task force’s visit was that the clergy in Postville determined that they would now meet to discuss the situation at the plant.

“Since there is such a serious problem,” he said, “We leaders asked ourselves, ‘How come it is that the religious leaders here have not met amongst ourselves?’”






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