May 16, 2008

What’s going on in Postville, Iowa?

Postville, Iowa is seemingly the picture of diversity, but underneath it is an example of multiculturalism gone bad.

In the late 80s Postville was just another rural mid west town with an uncertain future. The meat processor had closed its doors and the young were drifting away. In 1987 New York butcher Aaron Rubashkin purchased the plant and about 200 Hasidic Jews relocated to Postville.
But a funny thing happened on the way to diversity. The new residents could not have been different from the newcomers and a feeling of invasion pervaded the town despite the fact that the economic boom to Postville was certainly welcomed.
Two separate and distinct cultures emerged. The Jews were not particularly interested in becoming townsfolk. As the PBS documentary “Multiculturalism in Postville Iowa: When Cultures Collide” points out they in fact set up their own school so that their children would not mix with the Postville children. They held their own celebrations and had even held their own parade. They did not conform to community norms and to the locals that feeling of community was important.

Enter the Meatpackers:
To work the lines in the meat processing facility the owners relied on the labor of Mexican immigrants. The influx of Mexican workers further strained the little town. They had lost the feeling of security and suddenly people found they were locking their doors and keeping an eye on their children. The Catholic Church added a Spanish service but many of the Townspeople choose to commute to a nearby town for mass.
While some would say that the prejudices that emerged were born of ignorance, the underlying prejudices are actually innate to a community that had a tradition of community cohesiveness and the newcomers that were not interested in becoming part of the established community stretched the limits of tolerance.

ICE invades Postville.
Last week 300 illegal Mexican immigrants were arrested in Postville. 300! Shouldn’t we be surprised or appalled? Mexicans have become the slave labor of an industry that was once the economic lifeblood of many Iowans and thier communities. A meatpacker could expect to earn upwards of $15.00 an hour and was ensured of safe working conditions before the switch to immigrant labor. As the Des Moines Register reported;

“A federal search warrant said immigration officials have filed almost 700 complaints about immigration violations and criminal activity by workers at the Postville plant. The activity spans a two-year period, and some workers face multiple allegations.Federal officials allege that as many as three-fourths of the company's workers at the end of last year were using fraudulent Social Security numbers.

Last November, the search warrant said, ICE agents interviewed a former Agriprocessors supervisor who said some employees were running a methamphetamine lab in the plant and were bringing weapons to work. Another source alleged worker abuse, officials said in the warrant. In one case, a supervisor covered the eyes of an employee with duct tape and struck him with a meat hook.

The worker, who had entered the country illegally from Guatemala, was not seriously injured. He declined to report the incident for fear of losing his job, the warrant said. Another plant worker told federal officials that undocumented workers were paid $5 an hour for their first few months before receiving a pay increase to $6 per hour. The minimum wage in Iowa is $7.25 an hour. Company officials could not be reached for comment.

The experience of Postville is not unique however , other Iowa towns have been similarly transformed, with the support of the State Government. Storm Lake is just such an Iowa community that went through the forced migration of meatpackers in the 1980s.

The Hygrade workforce was primarily male and of European descent. Only in its last few years of operation, in the late l970s to early 1980s, did a few women work on the plant floor. The plant’s workforce was from Storm Lake and surrounding communities. Prior to the mid-1980s, Storm Lake was almost exclusively Anglo, and this homogeneity was reflected in Hygrade’s workforce.

Many of Hygrade’s workers put in thirty years or more at the plant, reflecting a low turnover. For many, their jobs supported a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. Average annual incomes were about $30,000, but some senior workers earned up to $40,000 or more in Hygrade’s last year of operation.

In October 1981, Hygrade closed its plant and Storm Lake lost five hundred jobs. Community leaders immediately set about attracting a new buyer for the plant.In April 1982 IBP announced its purchase of the plant for $2.5 million. After extensive renovation, this became the company's first pork-packing facility (IBP previously had processed only beef.) IBP’s move into pork processing signaled a major transformation of the industry.When IBP opened its doors in September 1982, its workforce did not resemble the old Hygrade crew. Hundreds of former Hygrade workers applied, but fewer than thirty were hired.

IBP would look beyond the Storm Lake community for its laborers. Beginning wages were only $6 an hour, and health benefits become available only after six months on the job. (Today, starting wages are $7 an hour.) The new plant had higher productivity expectations than the old plant. Injury rates climbed, and high employee turnover increased the strain on local labor supplies.

Beyond the fact that this is essentially slave labor in the twenty-first century, one has to ask why did it take two years to execute these arrests and why aren’t the owners of this operation in the Waterloo lock up with their illegal employees. More importantly the experiences of Postville, Storm Lake and others should be a warning to those that believe that immigration without assimilation is the ideal that we want to promote.

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