Fenger Pointing

Becky Fenger | September 17, 2008

Becky FengerSkating in Postville, Iowa

On the outskirts of Postville, Iowa, was a roller skating rink. As kids, we would go there and skate around and around to the music, anxiously awaiting “Ladies’ Choice” so we could ask the cute boys to skate with us. Those were exciting moments in our lives.

A half century later, the eyes of the nation are on Postville following an illegal immigration raid on May 12 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), supposedly the largest single raid in the nation’s history. These are turbulent times in this Midwestern town.

Postville’s population is now at 2,200 people, about double that of the old days, due to the presence of two large meat processing plants. One of them, Iowa Turkey Products, burned down in 2003 (some say suspiciously) and was rebuilt in Minnesota. Agriprocessors, a kosher meat plant, is the largest of its type in the world. It employs anywhere from 700 to 900 people. Many of the workers are U.S. citizens from other states. Dozens were legal war refuges from Somalia who came down from Minnesota, but they didn’t stay because they aren’t trapped like the illegals.

Locals had been hearing stories of abuse at Agriprocessors by the Jewish owners: child labor and brutal working conditions in the blood and guts industry with no time off after accidents with sharp knives. Employees were told to wrap the wound and keep on cutting, as the rumors go. No overtime or vacation time is ever paid. The beef slaughter and chicken slaughter are under different corporate names, and workers are switched between the two operations to keep them just under 40 hours.

Workers are stuffed into houses all bought up by the plant owner’s brother and pay inflated rents and inflated grocery bills, since they have no transport to stores in nearby towns. The owners deny any instances of abuse and, instead, claim they are victims of anti-Semitic discrimination.

Just days prior to the big raid, workers were forced by their bosses to spend up to $200 for “new ID cards.” Some 389 workers were arrested days later, most charged with using false identification or fake Social Security numbers. Two plant managers were charged with aiding in the possession and use of the false IDs. The majority of those nabbed were from Guatemala and Mexico with their legality in question.

Some undocumented workers who were sole caregivers for small children at home were fitted with ankle bracelets and allowed to return home. Since they couldn’t work, charity organizations rallied to feed them. Their spouses were whisked off to jails across the country and moved constantly to make finding them difficult. Jewish and Catholic groups from Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois organized a big rally on July 27 in support of the arrested meat plant workers, demanding workers’ rights and immigration reform.

Here is where Agriprocessors got clever in their attempts to replace their lost workers, close to half their work force. They sent recruiters to the Pacific Islands, specifically to the nation of Palau. Why? Well, citizens of Palau can work legally in the U.S. without any “green card” permits. Palau, the Des Moines Register reports, used to be a United Nations territory overseen by the U.S., and it signed “compacts of Free Association” with our government after it became independent.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union is trying to organize Agriprocessors. Hearing of the recruiting in Palau, they sent a letter to Palauan officials in an attempt to warn them of the mistreatment of workers at the plant. Palauans read about it in a local newspaper, but some made the long trek to Postville anyway.

Last week two Agriprocessors’ owners and two top administrators were charged with over 9,300 counts of underage employees. They were not led out in handcuffs, however, and claimed ignorance of the ages of their workers. They’ll probably skate.