The Iowa town of Postville took center stage in the debate over the nation’s failed immigration system, as 1,500 people rallied Sunday in support of packinghouse workers. The march came one day after three members of Congress met with workers to discuss worker and safety violations at the Agriprocessors, Inc., plant.
“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. “We are fortified in our resolve and will work tirelessly to achieve worker justice and comprehensive immigration reform.”
Nearly 400 people were arrested during a raid of the plant May 12 by ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Agriprocessors is the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the United States.
Sunday’s 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 is in compliance with Jewish dietary and ritual laws. A new campaign being started in Minnesota – Heksher Tzedek – focuses on the need to improve working conditions, treatment of employees, environmental standards and business practices at kosher food processing businesses.
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 were met by two buses from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago and buses from Madison, Wis. Members of several faith organizations in Iowa, including the Quakers, the United Church of Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, also participated.
Labor organizations represented included the United Food & Commercial Workers, which had been conducting an organizing drive at the Postville plant; SEIU; UNITE HERE; Minnesota AFL-CIO, Centro Campesino and more.
The groups held an interfaith service at St. Bridget’s, 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.” It was modeled after a poem called “I am a Jew” that they’d learned about while studying a unit on the Holocaust in school. The poem touched on their cultural pride in the face of adversity and immediately resonated with the largely 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 representatives from Agriprocessors, asking that the company set up an emergency fund for the families affected by the raid and that they pay the back wages and vacation time due to the workers swept up in the raid. The company listened to these requests, but made no commitments.
Because this was the first ICE raid that resulted in felony charges, men who were taken from the plant are being held in jails throughout the state (many of their family members report still not knowing where their loved ones are) and women with minor children were put under house arrest with ankle shackles that track their whereabouts.
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 was shocking to many of the Minneapolis riders, who commented on the inhumanity of the situation on the bus following their time in Postville.
On the buses, riders took part in a workshop that connected immigrant and workers’ rights with Jewish tradition and labor history. Included in the workshop was an overview of the hardships facing workers in today’s meatpacking plants, the Packinghouse Workers’ Bill of Rights and the ways that union organizing can help to bring about greater protections and conditions.
On Saturday, a three-member Congressional delegation, led by Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Taskforce, met with workers in Postville. (See related story).
“An immigration system that is predicated on fear tactics and piecemeal deportation-only policies profoundly worsens our immigration crisis by creating broken homes and tearing the fabric of our society,” Guitierrez said. “We have seen exactly that in Postville.”
Deborah Rosenstein, a staff member at the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service, works on labor and immigration issues with unions and other groups.
For more information
View video of Sunday’s events, taken by Education Minnesota member Steve Date, on the MinnPost website, www.minnpost.com/stevedate/2008/07/28/2731/sights_and_sounds_of_the_postville_rally
Donations to support the families in Postville may be sent to St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church, 135 West Williams Postville, IA 52162.