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.