Postville: Slaughterhouse Slum

Opinion

By Stephen G. Bloom

Published June 30, 2010, issue of July 09, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

How did former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin — convicted of financial fraud and sentenced in June to 27 years in prison — end up in such a sorry mess? And how did the company he ran, once the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the world, help transform the rural community of Postville, Iowa, into a slaughterhouse slum?

In the mid-1990s, long before the 2008 federal raid on Agriprocessors’ Postville plant, I interviewed scores of undocumented workers at the slaughterhouse — and saw firsthand stomach-retching conditions in which they were working. Many said they paid for fake Social Security cards to obtain jobs.

In 2004, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals infiltrated the slaughterhouse and produced an Internet-ready video, documenting abuses throughout the abattoir. The company was subsequently fined for repeated workplace-safety violations. The Environmental Protection Agency sued Agriprocessors for discharging chemicals into the groundwater. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also mandated meat recalls.

It’s important to point out that the federal sentence recently imposed on Rubashkin was not for or related to any of these alleged violations; it was strictly for financial fraud. Rubashkin had also been charged with hiring undocumented workers, but those charges were ultimately dropped. And in May, a jury exonerated him on additional charges of hiring underage workers.

But let’s pull back our collective lenses from Postville, and take a wider view of almost all American slaughterhouses, in an attempt to understand the significance of the Rubashkin case, Postville and what we eat each day.

For more than a century, American slaughterhouses were located in big cities, such as Chicago; Omaha, Neb., Fort Worth, Texas, and Wichita, Kan. But some 30 years ago, things began to change. The new industry wisdom was this: Move the slaughterhouses next to the richly marbled beef, instead of trucking ornery steers to cities. There are fewer unions in rural America, labor is cheaper there and the sparse population — eager for local economic development — was less likely to raise a stink about the putrid smells that come from a slaughterhouse.

The urban-to-rural shift had one big problem: There weren’t enough locals to work in these huge rural packinghouses.

Slaughterhouse work is one of the most dangerous jobs in America — a job that few American workers want at any wage. The jobs were especially uninviting, given that many rural packing plants hire only nonunion labor and pay their workers minimum wage or close to it.

So, in the early 1990s, when the Rubashkin family ran out of locals to work on the kill floor, Agriprocessors opted to hire Eastern European workers who had come to America in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union. When the Eastern European workers moved on — you work in a slaughterhouse only as long as you have to — who else was going to work for such low wages in such dangerous jobs?

Poor, uneducated Latinos. First Mexicans, then Guatemalans, then Hondurans, then practically anyone who’d show up, including Somalis and Palauans. No experience was necessary for a job that could cost you an arm and a leg — literally.

So, starting in the early and mid-1990s, the work force in Postville changed dramatically. Thousands of immigrants made their way to Postville. These workers, most of them undocumented, made the slaughterhouse hum. Without them, the kosher slaughterhouse probably would have closed years ago.

When I first started reporting on the Postville story, local kids often didn’t lock their bikes when they went into the general store to purchase an Icee. Drivers frequently didn’t use their turn signals, because everyone seemed to know where everyone else was headed. And getting stuck in traffic meant crawling behind a John Deere tractor on Main Street.

But the once flourishing, profit-driven slaughterhouse brought with it myriad problems, which ultimately turned Postville — and the quaint old notions about rural America — on its head. Life in Postville has been transformed since the kosher slaughterhouse opened in 1987, closed in the wake of the immigration raids and reopened recently, under new ownership.

These days, drugs are more readily available. Crime has risen. Dilapidated trailers and broken-down developments house immigrants who have no place to go. Many longtime locals who could move away have already done so.

Time was, among the only connections those in insular Postville had with the rest of the world were corn and hog prices, Hawkeye football and the three railroad trains that rolled through town daily.

That’s all changed. The slaughterhouse that Rubashkin built has all but ruined Postville.

Stephen G. Bloom is the author of “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America” (Mariner, Books 2001). He is a professor of journalism and the Bessie Dutton Murray Professional Scholar at the University of Iowa.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.