Last night, Donald Trump commuted the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, the former owner of Agriprocessors, the Postville, Iowa kosher meatpacking plant that was the site of a huge immigration raid in 2008.
Rubashkin, after the raid, was charged for immigration-related offenses but ultimately went to prison for bank fraud. Before being freed, he served eight years out of a 27-year prison sentence.
It should be remembered that Agriprocessors, even before the Postville raid, was a site of horrible labor abuse, where workers were forced to pay bribes, were unpaid for hours worked, received little training or safety equipment, and even sometimes suffered amputations. As one rabbi on Twitter said, the commutation of Rubashkin’s sentence is “a win for anti-immigrant and anti-worker forces.”
Said Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice:
Surprise, surprise: Donald Trump used his presidential powers to help a second serial immigrant abuser. First, he pardoned the criminal ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, and now he’s commuted the sentence of Agriprocessors’ Rubashkin, who got rich by exploiting immigrants in a modern-day rewrite of ‘The Jungle’. This is just another dark deed in Trump’s long list.
Rubashkin and Agriprocessors: “Long history of violating every law”
In 2006, the Jewish newspaper The Forward ran an expose on Agriprocessors that detailed the harsh working conditions at the plant. As a result, a commission was organized by Conservative Jewish leaders that criticized the plant’s operations, and a member of that commission proposed a new system of kosher certification that would take into consideration the working conditions where kosher food was proposed.
As The Forward wrote about the plant and some of its workers before the 2008 raid:
One of those workers — a woman who agreed to be identified by the pseudonym Juana — came to this rural corner of Iowa a year ago from Guatemala. Since then, she has worked 10-to-12-hour night shifts, six nights a week. Her cutting hand is swollen and deformed, but she has no health insurance to have it checked. She works for wages, starting at $6.25 an hour and stopping at $7, that several industry experts described as the lowest of any slaughterhouse in the nation.
Juana and other employees at AgriProcessors — they total about 800 — told the Forward that they receive virtually no safety training. This is an anomaly in an industry in which the tools are designed to cut and grind through flesh and bones. In just one month last summer, two young men required amputations; workers say there have been others since. The chickens and cattle fly by at a steady clip on metal hooks, and employees said they are berated for not working fast enough. In addition, employees told of being asked to bribe supervisors for better shifts and of being shortchanged on paychecks regularly.
The story went on to detail Agriprocessors’ abysmal conditions and treatment of its workers, even compared to similar plants. The little training that was done was often not conducted in Spanish, weekly paychecks would regularly come up three of four hours short, and a supervisor would tell workers to buy a car from him if they wanted a better shift or have a relative hired.
Agriprocessors itself was tagged with six violations in a year by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, more than half of all violations in Iowa meatpacking plants in that time. The company also paid $600,000 to settle with the Environmental Protection Agency to resolve wastewater pollution problems, and was assessed $182,000 in fines for 39 health, safety, and labor violations.
“This employer has a long history of violating every law that’s out there — labor laws, environmental laws, now immigration laws,” Mark Lauritsen of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which at one point tried to unionize the plant, told the Washington Post.
“We’re human beings, not animals,” one worker told The Forward.
Immigrants in Postville had little choice but to work at the plant, for lack of other options. They didn’t dare complain about the conditions, lest they lose their jobs. During one attempted union drive, supervisors told employees that workers would be referred to immigration agents if a union was formed. “You could tell these workers wanted help,” said an organizer with UFCW. “But they were so scared and beat down by this company.”
Yet because Agriprocessors was a kosher plant, it for a time escaped the scrutiny of labor conditions that other plants received. A number of experts told The Forward that they assumed that conditions were better in kosher slaughterhouses because they are supervised by clergymen. As Lourdes Gouveia, director of the Office of Latino Studies at the University of Nebraska, said, “My totally unexamined assumption was that good Orthodox Jews would probably have a different ethos for treatment of their workers.”
The immigration raid at the Postville Agriprocessors plant happened almost ten years ago, but the name of the town is still synonymous with the excessive force and anti-immigrant brutality that was on display. On the day of the raid, enforcement officials deployed two black helicopters, a line of SUVs, and ten white buses with darkened windows — a ridiculous show of force considering that they were arresting mothers and fathers who were doing nothing but working full-time jobs.
Some of those who were working fled and hid in cornfields overnight. Town members hid Latinos in their homes and warned people not to go to the plant. One man called a friend from his cellphone just before he was detained: “take care of my children,” he pleaded.
Those arrested were taken to the National Cattle Congress grounds in Waterloo, Iowa, about 75 miles away, before being sent to detention centers around the country and eventually being deported. Almost 400 workers were arrested that day, making Postville one of the largest workplace raids ever.
Afterward, hundreds of the town’s Latino residents poured into St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, where women, children, and families ate and slept, afraid ICE would come get them in their homes. Half of the local school’s students missed classes. Postville itself was thrown into an economic crisis as stores shuttered.
Later, it was found that the judge who sentenced the Agriprocessors workers was married to a man who had investments in private prison stocks, who bought more prison stock five days before the Postville raid. Sholom Rubashkin is now freed and relieved of his sentence, but hundreds of his former workers — whom he badly abused and mistreated — remain deported. There will be no sentence commutation for them.