Postville Iowa is a one traffic light town with a population of 2,300 people. Last Monday, as we read in the Washington Post, 17 percent of the town's residents were arrested in a raid coordinated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All were employees of AgriProcessors, the nation's largest producer of kosher meats.
The unusual story goes back to 1987, when Aaron Rubashkin and other members of a Lubavitch Hasidic sect moved from Brooklyn to (mostly Lutheran) Postville. That would have been a culture shock (on both sides) worth observing. In the years since, AgriProcessors has established itself as the town's main employer. The company has also become notable for dubious workplace practices: routine violations of fair employment laws, hiring underaged workers, falsifying documents on workers, wastewater pollution problems and inhumane slaughtering of animals.
So once again (remember New Bedford?) we have one of those highly ambiguous situations: the feds raid an employer who is exploiting undocumented labor. Federal actions have a veneer of concern for the workers, but these quickly evaporate in the context of ICE's primary function: arresting and deporting illegal workers. Some of these undocumented workers have been with the company from the beginning. As Eduardo Santos, 27, a worker who lost two fingers in the plant put it: "The raid was fair...but it's bad for everybody. There's no work."
Eduardo, if you will forgive the pun, has put his finger on the crux of the matter. These are jobs few are willing to take. The working conditions are abominable. The company owners may invoke a "higher law" in attempting to follow kosher rules, but they are demonstrably deficient in their application of the more mundane laws which govern the way we work.
Big Fish, Little Fish
There is a sense in all of this that the workers may not be the primary target of the raid.(See an excellent summary by Debra Nussbaum Cohen in the Jewish Weekly.) To be sure, the workers face very difficult times, leading inevitably to deportation for most. The feds, however, have positioned themselves to go after AgriProcessors's owners. Rabbi Sholom Rubashkin, the plant operator, finds himself accountable to rather formidable authorities of the conventional sort.
There are no clear winners here. The workers have been freed from jobs which they willingly embraced; they are about to be thrown out of their adopted community. Jewish consumers have lost their primary source of kosher meats. The town of Postville has lost its primary employer and will soon see the evisceration of its tax base.
The Postville saga is indicative of the overall undocumented worker dilemma: workers of last resort tolerate intolerable conditions because they are not supposed to be here in the first place. They take jobs no one else will take. Their pay and conditions fail to meet our basic standards, but are still far superior to what is generally available in Guatamala and Mexico, where most of these particular workers came from.
The ICE raids put a temporary halt to unacceptable working conditions in one small town. A handful of undocumented workers will be sent home. Some managers might end up in jail. It's not even a drop in the proverbial bucket. It's a drop in the ocean. Nonetheless, if members of Congress pay attention to the single drop hitting the water, they might remember it. They might actually try to do something about it.