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Behind the Postville slaughterhouse raid

COMMENTARY | May 18, 2008

A federal immigration raid at a kosher meatpacking plant in northeast Iowa on May 12 was the largest such operation in U.S. history, with nearly 400 people arrested.

The following Q and A with Stephen G. Bloom first appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Bloom is the author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America," and of an earlier report on Postville that ran in NiemanWatchdog.

Q: For five years in the 1990s, you researched the Agriprocessors plant in Postville and told the complicated story of how the success of this kosher slaughterhouse transformed a small Iowa town. How do the events of the past week fit into that story?

A: The Postville saga continues. In the late 1990s while researching the book, I quickly learned there were many undocumented workers at Agriprocessors. I learned of guns being bought and sold on the kill floor. Drugs were not uncommon, either. The sanitary conditions were appalling. All four of these same issues were alleged in the government's affidavit, which resulted in Monday's raid. An additional element I learned while researching the book was that female workers said they often were victims of sexual harassment.

The central reason for Monday's raid, though – that undocumented workers were being employed at Agriprocessors – has been one of the worst kept secrets in Iowa for years.

Q: How do the conditions at the Agriprocessors plant compare to slaughterhouses in other rural communities?

A: I only researched Agriprocessors, so I can't tell you how the plant compares to other slaughterhouses. I can tell you, though, that anyone who knocked on Agriprocessors' employment window with a minimum of documentation (which could be bought on the local black market) would be on the kill floor within 24 hours.

Something else that's important to note is that today's hiring of undocumented workers is the inevitable conclusion of the historic decision to move slaughterhouses from big cities to small rural communities.

Q: What do you mean by "inevitable"?

A: Let's look at the raid with some historic perspective. Agriprocessors started in 1987 in a defunct slaughterhouse. Before Aaron Rubashkin bought the plant, the only animals inside were the squirrels and raccoons that had made it their home.

Postville had a population of about 1,400 back then. As the slaughterhouse started to flourish, almost a thousand workers eventually were hired. No way could Agriprocessors pull all of its labor force from Postville. The locals didn't want to do such backbreaking work for minimum wage and few, if any, benefits.

Q: But why was it "inevitable" to turn to undocumented workers?

A: Forty years ago, many slaughterhouses were located in or near cities like Chicago, Fort Worth, Omaha, where there was abundant labor. At about that time, someone made the observation that it made great economic sense to move slaughterhouses closer to the corn-fed, rich Midwestern beef – fewer unions, cheaper land, less transportation costs, less government oversight. The very essence of rural America is sparse population, so the decision completely changed the economics of meat slaughtering. There's another issue, too, and that's how the meat-slaughtering shifted from requiring high-paid, highly skilled butchers to what it's become – a mechanized disassembly line that calls for unskilled workers.

The Hasidim, at first, hired a few locals. But the majority of people who took jobs were Eastern Europeans. This was in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, so there were Russians and Ukrainians looking for opportunities. They were refugees. Some came to America legally; some came illegally.

But those who worked at the slaughterhouse didn't work one day longer than they had to. That's the American Dream: Coming and taking the lowest job on the economic ladder, and then working your way up.

It was only after the Eastern European labor market dried up that there was a shift to hiring Latinos. There was no shortage of Mexicans and Central Americans who would gladly work in the slaughterhouse.

Q: After having personally witnessed incidents of labor abuse and unsanitary conditions in the Postville plant, are you surprised that it took the government so long to respond?

A: Yes and no. Everyone knew what was happening in the plant. PETA had been in the slaughterhouse and produced a video documenting abuses. The U.S. Department of Labor had fined the company for repeated workplace safety issues. The EPA was involved because the company had discharged pollutants. The USDA mandated recalls because of unsanitary conditions.

We need to consider the owners' possible viewpoint here – that perhaps hiring undocumented workers is simply the cost of doing business for slaughterhouses in rural America. It's akin to driving 90 mph on the Interstate because you want to get somewhere fast. You could drive 90 mph for three weeks without any problem, and then one day a trooper stops you. For three weeks you've had the benefit of arriving where you needed to go much faster. Maybe the cost of the ticket was worth it.

Q: How are the labor and health issues complicated by the overt religious identity of the owners of the company?

A: Agriprocessors is a privately run company. In a matter of 10 years, it went from a start-up meat-packing plant to the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the world.

I think it's a fallacy to believe that, because the slaughterhouse is being run by Hasidic Jews who view piety as a premiere ethic, the owners' religious values somehow change their business practices. I think the owners likely compartmentalize their business decisions from their own personal and religious ethics.

Q: Do the events of this week make you want to write a sequel to "Postville"?

A: No. It was a painful process to report and write this book. When the book came out, I was assailed by many conservative and Orthodox Jews as a turncoat. The Hasidim publicly urged me to convert to Lutheranism.

They said I was a disgrace to Jews worldwide.

But the book has held up. The facts exposed were shocking then and they're shocking today. So there's a continuum – what began in 1995 extends to 2008.

Q: So the saga doesn't stop?

A: I've been told that the slaughterhouse owners are almost doubling wages to anyone documented who will work at Agriprocessors today. But I think that is short-term. The nature of the problem isn't going away. Few U.S. workers want to work in a slaughterhouse for even these moderately higher wages. It's one of the most dangerous jobs in America.

One final point worth making: While the arrested Agriprocessors workers broke the law by buying Social Security cards and by entering the United States illegally, they came to the U.S. for all the right reasons. They took jobs that Americans wouldn't take. They wouldn't have come to Postville unless jobs were readily available. These workers made the slaughterhouse hum. Now they're the ones suffering the most.

[And click here for a Washington Post article on the Postville slaughterhouse and raid, written as part of a Post series, “The Immigration Debate.”]

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