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Rubashkin Cleared of Child Labor Charges

Kosher meat-packer acquitted

Mark Bergen
June 08, 2010
The Pottsville, Iowa, Agriprocessors plant.(Wikipedia)
The Pottsville, Iowa, Agriprocessors plant.(Wikipedia)

Convicted of 86 charges of financial fraud in the fall, Sholom Rubashkin, the ultra-Orthodox owner of the Agriprocessors Glatt kosher meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa, was acquitted of an additional 67 counts of child labor violations yesterday afternoon by an Iowa state jury.

Rubashkin stood accused of hiring 26 teenagers from Guatemala and Mexico at the plant. Not only were the underage laborers knowingly on the payroll, prosecutors argued, but they were forced to work excessive hours around dangerous machinery and chemicals. While earlier trials against Rubashkin were held in neighboring South Dakota, the child labor hearings unfolded in Waterloo, Iowa—a short hour and a half drive from Postville.

The trial, which dragged on for nearly a month, revealed a company beset by divisive management and a vigilant anti-union streak. But the defense successfully cast Rubashkin as an unfortunate victim, uninvolved in day-to-day hiring practices that included workers’ falsifying documents.

One former plant employee testified that she began her job, defeathering chickens for 12-hour days, when she was 15. Another took to the witness stand to claim the company directed its workers to lie about their age to state labor investigators. An Agriprocessors Human Resources rep, he said, “Told us not to tell them I was 17 because the plant would have problems.”

Two former supervisors brought more apparently damning evidence against the plant. Mark Andrew Spangler, a night shift supervisor, said the slaughterhouse “most definitely” hired minors. While a second supervisor, Matthew Derrick, recalled approaching Rubashkin about the presence of underage workers, his warnings, he claimed, were shrugged off.

But the defense pushed back hard, calling upon a plant manager to refute the supervisors’ claims. Spangler, the manager said, was a drunk, and Derrick was “lazy.”

An agent from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation told jurors that Derrick never reported his tale of warning Rubashkin before. Plus, according to Rabbi Zvi Bass, Derrick got a little too close to one underage female employee—though that testimony was thrown out.

Rubashkin’s lawyers culled mugshots of Latinos from Mexico and Guatemala and asked the lead investigator to guess the age of each. He missed more than a couple times. (Agriprocessors is accused of hiring workers as young as 13.) The tactic was pivotal to the defense’s main point: That the Rubashkins were fooled into hiring minors and, therefore, not culpable.

One witness for the defense was Rabbi Moses Weissmandel, who oversaw the plant’s Kosher certification. He testified that, on his frequent trips through the plant, he didn’t notice any underage workers. A former plant controller also testified that the Rubashkins were always staunchly against hiring minors.

Yesterday’s acquittal marks a rare victory for the former Agriprocessors’ management. A federal judge recently sentenced a company accountant to three years in prison.

The trial also points to the continual reverberations the industry and raid have in the rural community and beyond. Both a PBS documentary, “In the Shadow of the Raid,” and a lengthy Des Moines Register report explore the transnational impact of the plant’s saga.

Last week, the prosecution rested its case, pinning Rubashkin directly for ignoring repeated warnings about labor violations. In response, the defense framed Rubashkin — in odd, allegorical language — as a scapegoat, targeted maliciously and unfairly. Defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown described his client: “The stranger in a strange land. He became the white whale. You can feel from the absence of evidence and the evidence itself that they rushed to the conclusion that he was responsible, this white whale. Moby Jew.”

Rubashkin’s lawyers pushed the midwestern jurors to identify with their client. “He takes his kids to Disney World,” Brown said. “He’s just like us, he just looks different and believes in God a little different way.”

Mark Bergen is a journalist based in Bangalore. His Twitter feed is @mhbergen.