Owners of the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse have been facing an organized revolt from workers who are unhappy with conditions at the factory — first in the form of a class-action lawsuit against the company, and more recently in a mass walkout by employees during regular working hours.
The lawsuit and the walkouts are hitting AgriProcessors, a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, that is owned by the Rubashkins, an ultra-Orthodox family based in Brooklyn’s Chabad-Lubavitch community.
Workers at the Iowa slaughterhouse told the Forward that between 200 and 300 employees left their posts last Monday during the morning work shift to protest a May 4 letter sent by the company’s management to employees, many of whom are believed to be undocumented immigrants. A copy of the letter acquired by the Forward informed workers that in order to keep their jobs at the plant they would need to reconcile their Social Security numbers with federal records. Workers say it is their understanding that after the records are reconciled, they will have to again work their way up the plant’s pay scale, which starts at $6.25 an hour.
The company did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
The walkout came a little more than a month after 23 workers filed a class-action lawsuit against the company in a Dubuque, Iowa, federal court. The lawsuit alleges that the company has not compensated workers for the time they spend preparing for work at the beginning of the day and cleaning up at the end of it. Such compensation appears to be mandated by recent Supreme Court decisions.
The company has not yet filed a response but a lawyer for AgriProcessors told the Forward that the company is investigating the allegations.
Working conditions at the AgriProcessors slaughterhouse have been under scrutiny in the past year, after an article in the Forward detailed worker complaints. Since then, the company has been the subject of an investigation by rabbis affiliated with the Conservative synagogue movement (see sidebar ).
During these inquiries workers at the plant were generally hesitant to speak publicly about their concerns, but this appears to be changing.
One of the workers named in the class-action suit, Berulo Morillo Jimenez, said that the silence has faded as workers have grown more frustrated with their unaddressed concerns.
“[The managers] are always yell, yell, yell,” said Morillo Jimenez, 53, who came to Postville from Guanajuato, Mexico. “They just treated us terribly. What resulted now is that we are standing up for our rights.”
Morillo Jimenez, worked for three years in the beef department at AgriProcessors, cutting London broil and steak from the bone. He left AgriProcessors last month to work for a construction company.
“At the new job it’s still hard work, but they treat employees better,” Murillo said. “They don’t tell us to run, run, run. They give us breaks.”
In addition to the legal fight in Iowa, AgriProcessors’ Miami operation is facing a lawsuit from an employee that says the company has refused to pay him overtime. A similar suit against the Miami operation was filed and settled with the company last year.
The lawyer representing AgriProcessors in the Miami cases did not return calls seeking comment.
While AgriProcessors did not respond to requests for comment about the walkout, The Courier, a local Iowa newspaper, reported last week that Shalom Rubashkin, the Postville plant manager, denied that any walkout had occurred.
“The people that checked in this morning stayed until the end of the shift,” Rubashkin was quoted as saying in The Courier.
The walkout was reported in a number of local Iowa news outlets and three workers at the plant told the Forward that it did in fact occur. One of the three said he participated in it. The three workers said that a second walkout took place Monday night, involving about 50 employees. Confirmation of both walkouts also came from officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers, who have been living in Postville while trying to organize employees at the plant.
By May 11, a pamphlet was circulating around the apartment blocks where workers live, mocking Rubashkin’s denial of the walkout. The pamphlet features an ugly figure, presumably meant to be Shalom Rubashkin, saying: “There was no walkout or anything else…. Workers Love Me, Workers are Happy & Workers Love Working at AgriProcessors!!”
The head of the local union organizing efforts, Carl Ariston, said that the motivation for the walkout was a letter sent on May 4 by the company, in which workers were told that their Social Security numbers did not match government records. The letter, from the human resources director, tells workers to verify their social security numbers within 60 days, or lose their jobs.
In the past, workers have told the Forward that in order to work at AgriProcessors, immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala have secured fake Social Security numbers.
Ariston and the workers at the plant said that the walkout was ended after Rubashkin came out and told the workers that he would attempt to fix the Social Security problem.
“Everyone left, and there was a lot of disorder, and then there was some chat with the owners,” said Marvin Yovany Lopez, a former worker who is listed in the class-action suit and still lives in Postville.
This is not the first time that the immigration status of workers at AgriProcessors has come into question. Last year, the company did not recognize a union vote at its Brooklyn facilities, arguing that the vote was invalid because management had discovered that many of the workers who participated were illegal immigrants.
A National Labor Relations Board judge decided against the company and ordered it to recognize the vote.
The Conservative rabbis who visited the Postville plant issued a report in December, in which they said that “there are significant issues of concern at the plant, including issues of health and safety.”
At the time, the members of the Conservative committee said they were trying to work with the Rubashkins to change conditions at the plant, but there was little concrete movement on that front. Today, workers at the plant say that nothing has changed.
Morillo Jimenez told the Forward that the Rubashkins did say at one point during the past year that they would help workers straighten out their visas. He said this led many workers to stick around, but nothing ever happened.
“Things are almost exactly the same,” Morillo Jimenez said.
Among the original complaints reported by the Forward were those about the lack of pay for work performed at the beginning and end of the day. A Supreme Court decision in 2005, known as IBP v. Alvarez , affirmed past decisions that found companies to be responsible for paying workers to put on and take off protective gear — known in the business as “donning and doffing.”
The lead counsel on the lawsuit in Iowa, Brian McCafferty, said that workers at AgriProcessors are not being paid for anything other than the time that the production lines are moving. At lunch, the workers have a 30-minute unpaid break, but McCafferty said that, in practice, they get little of the break because they have to clean up before eating and then prepare again before working.
Murillo Jimenez, a named defendant in the class-action suit, said another problem at lunch is that the company provides only one microwave for the dozens of workers on break at any one time.
McCafferty said that the biggest of the alleged shortchanges comes at the end of the day.
“At the end of the day, you’re covered in blood and guts and you have to wash all of that off, and you have to wash all the equipment” he said. “According to our interviews, they’re not getting paid for any of that.”
McCafferty, who has led past successful lawsuits on the donning and doffing issue, said he believes that AgriProcessors may have to pay upward of $1 million in back pay.
Burillo and Lopez said that until now, the workers had put up with the short pay because they did not know any better.
“Here the people don’t know,” said Yovany Lopez, who de-veined beef at the plant. “They don’t know English or laws or how to read and write.”