by: Ben Harris - Last updated: 2008-05-27
Mounting pressure from Jewish groups and members of Congress has led the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the United States to start searching for a new CEO less than two weeks after federal agents arrested nearly 400 of its employees in a massive immigration raid.
Aaron Rubashkin, the founder of Agriprocessors, announced May 23 that he intends to find a replacement for his son Sholom as company CEO.
The announcement follows statements from three Jewish organizations raising the specter of a boycott, the launch of a campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and a call from U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) for an investigation of the company.
"The best course of action for the company, its employees, the local community and our customers is to bring new leadership to Agriprocessors," the senior Rubashkin said in a statement.
The Brooklyn butcher and Chabad-Lubavitcher, who founded the company in 1987, added, "The company has begun the search for a new permanent chief executive officer. We have engaged a team of industry experts to help us identify and secure a new leader who can help us meet the needs of Agriprocessors today and in the future. We will make more information on the search process available by the end of next week."
The statement reiterated that "due to pending legal issues," the company would not respond to specific allegations. They include charges of hiring underage workers, sexual harassment and withholding of overtime pay.
Rubashkin's move to replace his son comes as Agriprocessors is facing mounting legal problems and boycott threats following the recent raid. The company's problems have raised fears about a possible shortage of kosher meat and fired up the debate over whether Jewish religious bodies should take a more active role in monitoring the working conditions at kosher factories.
In response to the raid and related allegations about the situation at the plant in Postville, Iowa, the Jewish Labor Committee issued a statement May 23 calling for a boycott of Agriprocessors.
The company sells its kosher meat under various labels, including Aarons Best, Aarons Choice, Rubashkins, European Glatt, Supreme Kosher, Davids and Shor Habor.
In its statement, the Jewish Labor Committee asserted that the company had displayed "a clear pattern of employer negligence and even lawlessness," including the violation of child labor laws and toleration of various forms of worker abuse.
The committee's statement was followed by a "request" from the Conservative movement's top bodies that kosher consumers "evaluate whether it is appropriate to buy and eat meat products" from Agriprocessors.
That same day, Uri L'tzedek, a project started by students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school in Manhattan, began circulating a petition asking Agriprocessors to pay its workers at least the federal minimum wage, abide by laws pertaining to workers' rights and treat employees according to Torah standards.
Organizers say that about 450 people from across the denominational spectrum had signed as of Monday.
"Until these changes are made, we feel compelled to refrain from purchasing or consuming meat produced by your company, and will pressure every establishment with which we do business to cease purchase of your meat," the petition reads. "Effective June 15, 2008 we will stop patronizing any restaurant that sells your meat."
Meanwhile, the food workers union has taken out advertisements in major Jewish newspapers detailing the allegations against Agriprocessors. The union, which has waged a legal battle over its still unsuccessful efforts to organize plant workers, also has launched a Web site, EyeOnAgriprocessors.org to publicize claims against the company.
Last week, in a sign of the controversy's impact, a supermarket in a heavily Jewish suburb of Philadelphia posted a sign stating that its kosher chicken was produced by Empire, a major poultry competitor.
The store director told JTA that the market was unable to procure chicken from Aaron's, which it had been selling for three years, and wanted to inform customers of the change.
The May 12 federal raid is said to be the largest of its kind in U.S. history. Of the 389 illegal immigrants apprehended, 297 pleaded guilty within days and were sentenced to short prison terms or probation, to be followed by deportation to their native countries.
Speculation is rife over whether prosecutors are investigating the company itself, especially after one Postville resident with ties to Agriprocessors confirmed last week that he had been summoned to appear before a grand jury.
A spokesman for the local U.S. Attorney's Office would not comment on the matter.
In Washington, the House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing May 20 on the raid, focusing mainly on its impact on the children of detained workers. But members of Congress also have expressed concern that the raids targeted illegal workers while letting their employers off the hook.
Braley, who represents the northeast Iowa area where the plant is located, has called for an investigation of the company.
"Until we enforce our immigration laws equally against both employers and employees who break the law, we will continue to have a problem with illegal immigration," Braley said. "Naturally the sheer number of arrests made by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] during Monday's raid raises questions about Agriprocessors Inc.'s knowledge of possible violations of employment and immigration law."
Within the Jewish world, the loudest reactions have come from the Conservative movement and the liberal edge of Orthodoxy. Interviews with some of Postville's Chabad residents and other observers suggest that the fervently Orthodox, or haredi community, is taking the flood of accusations against Agriprocessors with more than a grain of salt.
"The problem is, there's a mind-set that you have to give the person the benefit of the doubt," said Binyomin Jolkovsky, the editor of Jewish World Review and a longtime observer of haredi Jewry. "But when 12 government agencies come in and do a sting operation, and after something that was so detailed, you got to wonder."
In the haredi community, Jolkovsky said, the sentiment tends to be much more focused on the bottom line for the consumer.
"They're paying people $5 an hour labor, how come I'm paying $7 a pound for steak?' That's what they were saying," he said.
Some Jewish Postville residents refused to even consider some of the government's allegations, such as that methamphetamine was being produced at the plant or that the company was shorting its workers. In the days after the raid, several told JTA that the affair was the product of an anti-Orthodox, if not anti-Semitic, agenda.
"Many of the allegations are ridiculous, like the meth labs," said Aaron Goldsmith, a Chabad rabbi and former Postville city councilman with ties to the Rubashkins. "Why would somebody want to pour millions and millions of dollars into infrastructure and let a poor man's drug business run in a plant? It doesn't make any sense to me. It's stupid. It's not in the interest of the company."
Goldsmith, who runs a custom hospital-bed business headquartered near Agriprocessors, acknowledged that whatever the truth of the allegations, the company's reputation is "in trouble."
Asked what he would say to kosher consumers concerned about the charges flying against the company, Goldsmith paused for nearly a minute before answering.
"Clearly the Rubashkins need to rethink a lot of their management style," he said, "because whatever good they do and whatever errors they made are completely perceived in a way that's undermining their own company. To me, they need to bring the reality and the perceptions in line with each other."