POSTVILLE, Iowa (Workday Minnesota) –The Iowa town of Postville took center stage – again – in the debate over the nation’s failed immigration system, as 1,500 people, including unionists, rallied July 27 in support of packinghouse workers there.

The march came one day after four members of Congress met with workers to discuss worker and safety violations at the Agriprocessors, Inc., plant in Postville, site of a now-infamous Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency raid that arrested 390.

“Our rallying in support of the detained Agriprocessors workers and their families exemplifies our unified determination that injustice in any one part of the country impacts us all,” said Jane Ramsey of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. The Postville plant is the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant.

“We are fortified in our resolve and will work tirelessly to achieve worker justice and comprehensive immigration reform,” Ramsey added.

Some 390 people were arrested during ICE’s May 12 raid. It had orders to find 697, witnesses told Congress earlier in the week. Most those arrested were picked up because they looked, or had sounded, Hispanic. But they spoke a variety of languages, including Spanish, Mayan dialects and – ironically – Hebrew. Two were Israelis. The rally was organized by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Jewish Community Action and St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church in Postville.

By definition, kosher food made at the plant complies with Jewish dietary and ritual laws. But previous Iowa state probes uncovered safety and health violations there. The plant’s owners are Orthodox and supposed to abide by rules governing kosher food. They say – despite specific pro-worker’s rights sections in the Biblical book of Deuteronomy – that being kosher doesn’t cover workers’ rights.

A new campaign being started in Minnesota by religious organizations’ – Heksher Tzedek – focuses on the need to improve working conditions, treatment of employees, environmental standards and business practices at kosher food processors.

Businesses that adhere to a set of standards, still being developed, will receive some type of “seal” indicating that the food was produced in just conditions. “As concerned as we are about how an animal gets killed, we need to be equally concerned about how a worker lives,” said a leader in the movement, Rabbi Morris Allen of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Minneapolis.

Three buses, carrying about 130 people, journeyed to Postville from the Twin Cities. They met two buses from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago and buses from Madison, Wis. Members of several Iowa faiths, including the Quakers, the United Church of Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, also participated.

Unions who marched included the United Food and Commercial Workers. Its Twin Cities-based Local 789 had been conducting an organizing drive at the Postville plant before the ICE raid smashed into the workforce. Other labor groups included SEIU, UNITE HERE, the Minnesota AFL-CIO, the Centro Campesino and more.

Groups held an interfaith service at St. Bridget’s – which has sheltered 800 scared people since the raid – followed by a march that stopped outside the gates of Agriprocessors. At a children’s park, a group of Postville children, who were born in the U.S. and whose families were affected by the raids, read a poem together, titled “I am Latino.”

That poem was modeled after a poem called “I am a Jew” the children learned about while studying the Holocaust in school. “I am Latino” touched on their cultural pride in the face of adversity. It immediately resonated with the mostly Jewish crowd.

The rally and march, in addition to connecting with the social justice teachings of various faith traditions, sent a clear call for comprehensive immigration reform and for workers’ rights. JCA and JCUA leaders met briefly with Agriprocessors representatives, asking the company set up an emergency fund for families affected by the raid and that they pay the back wages and vacation time due to the workers swept up by ICE. The company listened to these requests, but made no commitments.

Because this was the first ICE raid that resulted in felony charges, men taken from the plant are being held in jails throughout Iowa an many family members report still not knowing where their loved ones are. Women with minor children were put under house arrest with ankle shackles that track their whereabouts.

Nevertheless, many of these women attended the march and rally, wearing red, like the other locals affected by the raids, and pushing strollers with their children. The sight of their ankles shocked many of the Minneapolis riders, who commented on the inhumanity of the situation on the bus following their time in Postville. Bus riders took part in a workshop that connected immigrant and workers’ rights with Jewish tradition and labor history. It included an overview of the hardships facing workers in today’s meatpacking plants, the Packinghouse Workers’ Bill of Rights and the ways union organizing can help to bring about greater protections and conditions.

This article originally appeared in Workday Minnesota.



Deborah Rosenstein
Deborah Rosenstein

Deborah Rosenstein wrote for Workday Minnesota. She also produced the award-winning “Minneapolis Truckers Make History,” an updated documentary about the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, for the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service.