By STEVEN GREENHOUSE – NY Times
A bankruptcy trustee reopened a kosher meat plant in Iowa on Wednesday in a move intended to comfort a town that has been economically crippled since 389 illegal immigrants were arrested at the plant in May.
But judging from an angry meeting on Wednesday night, the reopening of the Agriprocessors plant in Postville — and the rehiring of more than 200 workers — produced more acrimony than solace, with many workers upset that they had not been called back to their jobs.
Many workers also complained to the bankruptcy trustee, Joseph Sarachek, who organized the meeting, that the plant, until recently the nation’s largest kosher meat producer, had failed to pay them wages they were owed for the two or more weeks before it closed on Nov. 14.
“It was one of the most hostile meetings I’ve ever been to,” Jeff Abbas, manager of KPVL, the local radio station, which has led a community effort to help laid-off plant employees, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “I felt a little sorry for Sarachek, because there were so many questions he couldn’t answer: When will we be paid? When will we go back to work?”
Mr. Sarachek, a bankruptcy expert from New York, was appointed trustee after the plant’s owner, the Rubashkin family, filed for bankruptcy last month. The plant’s kosher certification was threatened after it was fined $10 million for wage violations and faced criminal charges for 9,300 child labor violations.
Mr. Sarachek said in a telephone interview that he had rushed to reopen the plant because Agriprocessors owned 700,000 chickens that needed to be slaughtered. A bankruptcy judge authorized him to spend $2.5 million to run the plant through next Friday.
“Our game plan is to begin with the chickens, then deal with some of the cooked meats and to actively market the company for sale,” he said. He has hired as top assistants two consultants with decades of experience in kosher meat production, Arnold Mikelberg and Allan Gluck.
Mr. Sarachek said the budget he was given to run the plant was not enough for him to cover the $500,000 owed in back wages. So he promised to repay quickly only those people who were rehired, as a way to attract workers back to a plant. (Others owed back pay need to apply to the bankruptcy judge.)
At the meeting on Wednesday, one woman, eager for her job and back wages, shouted, “Tell me where I’m supposed to go and what I’m supposed to do.”
The plant, which employed more than 800 workers last spring, has long been the economic heart of Postville, a town of about 2,000 residents. Its closing created shock and despair.
Some 160 workers legally in this country from Palau were stranded, but many have since been hired at other meatpacking plants in Iowa. Scores of Orthodox Jewish workers who lived in Postville were left without work, as were dozens of African-Americans from around the Midwest who had moved to Postville to take jobs at Agriprocessors.
“The disaster has so many layers,” said Maryn Olson, the acting coordinator of the Postville Response Coalition, a group of religious organizations, news media and government agencies helping to provide food, shelter and money to hard-pressed families. “I’ve seen dozens of people every day coming for help. People need money to do their laundry. People need $5 to put gas in their car to take someone to the doctor. People need rent money, money for their heat, their lights.”
Each Wednesday, 150 people line up at the local food pantry. Local churches are playing a pivotal role in feeding and sheltering more than 30 Hispanic women arrested at the plant and awaiting deportation — for some it has been slowed by their having children born in America. The churches are also helping some 20 Hispanic workers who were arrested, given G.P.S. ankle bracelets and ordered by prosecutors to stay in the area, so they can testify against Agriprocessors and its managers.
The plant’s former chief executive, Sholom Rubashkin, is in jail, awaiting a trial on felony charges of bank fraud, harboring illegal immigrants for profit and abetting document fraud and identity theft.
Referring to the plant’s long-time practice of hiring illegal immigrants before the raids last May, the Rev. Paul Ouderkirk of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, said, “The sword of Damocles was hanging over the Rubashkins and it fell, and when it hit them, it hit the city.”
Like many other residents, Father Ouderkirk said he remained unsure whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the potential sale of the plant.
“I’d say Hanukkah and Christmas are to be very sad in town,” he said. “A lot of people are unemployed, including a lot of Jewish families. It’s a major catastrophe, what’s happened here.”