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Agriprocessors: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Since I last posted on Agriprocessors, shortly after the company was hit with more than 9,000 counts of child labor violations, the company’s "former" CEO (and still current VP) Rabbi Sholom M. Rubashkin was arrested on felony immigration and identity fraud charges. That was followed two weeks later by his second arrest on felony bank fraud charges. Rubashkin faces more than 50 years in federal prison, along with more time in state lockup.

Agriprocessors itself was indicted shortly after Rubashkin’s second arrest, and the company faces millions of dollars in fines.

Early in November, Agriprocessors declared bankruptcy.  Then, on November 14, the day of Rubashkin’s first federal arrest, Agriprocessors missed its payroll, leaving workers – many of them already poor – without money and, in many cases, food. Production ceased shortly after.

Now Agriprocessors’ court-appointed trustee, Joseph Sarachek of New York, is trying to restart production and pay workers – at least those workers who play ball with the company.

In effect, Sarachek is running a plantation with slavery replaced by indentured servitude. If workers come back to work, they will be given back wages owed to them in dribs and drabs. If they do not come back to work, they will need to wait for the final bankruptcy settlement  – which means they likely will never see any money. Secured creditors like banks get paid first, and Agriprocessors has more debt now, including potential fines, than industry experts I’ve spoken with believe it has equity.

Sarachek told me Friday that he wants "everyone" to be repaid, but said the "budget" he has been given and US bankruptcy law prevents him from doing more for workers.

Sarachek’s press release announcing the possible resumption of production and repayment of selected workers tells workers to contact plant spokesman Chaim Abrahams with questions. 

Abrahams – a fierce Rubashkin partisan and a fellow member of the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic sect – is one of the figures in Agriprocessors most distrusted by workers. Throughout the 6 1/2 month crisis, Abrahams has defended almost every action of the company. He has repeatedly denied the company abused workers or shorted their pay.

Abrahams also tried to silence Postville’s community radio station, KPVL, and fire or censor its main on-air personality, Jeff Abbas. Abrahams is especially upset by Abbas’ airing of interviews done with former workers, calling the bad news about the company "divisive" and bad for Postville.

Abrahams sits on the radio station’s board. The station is a nonprofit, and Abrahams should have resigned from that board immediately after the May 12 raid. He did  not. Instead, he tried to use his position and influence to remove Abbas.

Along with running KPVL, Abbas stepped in to fill the void left by city inaction. As Agriprocessors workers found themselves broke, hungry and sometimes homeless, Abbas lobbied state officials to bring in relief. When the mayor heard that Jewish families were going hungry because they lacked kosher food, he turned to Abbas, who led a successful emergency drive to get kosher food for Postville’s Jews.

Before that, Abbas started an impromptu 7-day soup kitchen and food shelf in Postville’s multicultural center next to his radio station to augment the existing 3-day-per-week community food shelf.  The city objected to this use of the multicultural center and repeatedly tried to shut the Abbas soup kitchen/food shelf down. At the same time, the city made no attempt to pick up the the slack that this shutdown, if successful, would bring.

On Friday, November 21, state, county and city officials, along with volunteers like Abbas, met in Postville to try to coordinate relief efforts. Under pressure, the city agreed to use Turner Hall, an unoccupied city-owned landmark, as a relief center. 

According to volunteers (and according to the sign posted on the building’s entrance) the relief center was supposed to be open seven days a week, staffed by volunteers. 

But, when volunteers showed up Saturday morning, they found the building locked tight. No one from the city came to open it or returned their calls. Hungry Agriprocessors workers were left on the streets to fend for themselves – a situation the city has seemed quite happy with these past few months.

Among Agriprocessors’ dispossessed,  Abbas has become the go-to person for all types of help.  He has helped find dozens transportation home – whether that home is Indianapolis or Palau, the South Sea island where some of the newer Agriprocessors workers are from.

So when one of those dispossessed heard others talking about robbing stores and holding Rubashkin family members at gunpoint to get the money owed them, the worker made a beeline to Abbas.

Abbas smartly recorded the worker’s story and then called the county sheriff (it was too early in the morning to call Postville’s tiny police department, which was closed). After that, Abbas called the mayor and a prominent member of the Jewish community. He did not air the threat because he did not want to create panic.

Three hours after first informing law enforcement, Abbas decided the threat should be publicly available information, so he sent the audio to me. I published it immediately and urged the Jewish community to take precautions, including evacuating its private school.

Abbas’s decision infuriated both Postville’s city administration and the Jewish community – even though at the time I posted the audio reinforcements from the county sheriff had still not arrived in Postville (they were "on the way," a law enforcement source told me, and should be arriving "soon"; remember, this is three full hours after Abbas first called), and Postville’s tiny police force did not have the capability on its own to handle the threat.

Iowa media picked up on the threat, the JTA later blogged about it, and the attention helped push through the coordinated relief effort mentioned above – the same relief effort the city is now undermining.

Meanwhile, we also recently learned that the undocumented Agriprocessors workers released from federal prison after serving five month sentences for aggravated identity theft are being supported entirely by St. Bridget’s Catholic Church.

The workers have to remain in the country until they testify at Agriprocessors’ and Sholom M. Rubashkin’s trials, along with the trials of other indicted Agriprocessors managers. But they have no means of support. Their temporary work permits arrived weeks after their release and, in any case, jobs are very scarce in Postville these days.

But that scarcity of work does not apply to the Rubashkin family.

I asked Agriprocessors’ trustee, Joseph Sarachek, if Rubashkin family members like Sholom M. Rubashkin’s brother, Heshy (also an Agriprocessors VP) or Sholom M.’s son Getzel would be employed by the company if production restarts Monday or Tuesday.

"Yes," Sarachek said.

I asked him why.

"I need their experience," Sarachek replied.

Ditto for Chaim Abrahams, the Agriprocessors spokesman and would-be censor who Sarachek named point man for workers’ questions.

"It’s like triage," Sarachek said, "I have to work with what I’ve got." 

What Sarachek has is far more than what most workers and unsecured creditors will ever see – real income from Agriprocessors.

Can meat produced through a modern form of indentured servitude be kosher?

Joseph Sarachek’s grandfather, the late Rabbi Joseph Sarachek, was at one time the head of the NYC Board of Rabbis.

I wonder how Rabbi Sarachek would answer that question.

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