OXFORD, Miss. – Why hasn’t Koch Foods Inc. CEO Joe Grendys been placed under arrest? Apparently agents at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency much prefer going after low-wage immigrant workers at poultry plants than fat-cat billionaires whose economic welfare is protected by their friends among the nation’s political elite.

Koch Foods Inc. CEO Joe Grendys
Koch Foods Inc. CEO Joe Grendys

Over the years workers at Koch Foods Inc. in Morton, Mississippi, and other poultry plants across the country have had to deal with harassment, sexual discrimination, refusal to allow bathroom breaks, charges for normal workday activities, and politicians from Donald Trump on down who’ve worked to reduce workplace safety controls and punish those who complain.

The massive raids and arrests of 680 Latino poultry workers conducted by some 600 ICE agents in Mississippi this month fit perfectly into a pattern that has existed for some time.

Just last year the Chicago-area-based Koch Foods, a $3.5 billion company, agreed to pay Latino workers $3.5 million as settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for racial and national origin discrimination and sexual harassment at its Mississippi operations. The settlement came after claims that supervisors would touch and make sexual comments to female employees and even strike workers physically. Those who complained were fired.

ICE raids also followed complaints by workers of workplace conditions at plants in Salem, Ohio, and Morristown, Tennessee. Labor reporter Mike Elk wrote an ICE raid came one week after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Fresh Mark $200,000 for safety violations at the Salem, Ohio, plant.

The recent raids in Mississippi came one the first day of school, thus separating parents from their children—a situation not unknown in the ongoing anti-immigrant-demagoguery of the Trump Administration. Friends and relatives begged the ICE against to “Let them go!” as they carried them off to unknown fates and possibly the concentration-like camps the federal government has allowed in its arrangements with the private prison industry.

Those cries for mercy may have been an embarrassing enough to force ICE later to release temporarily 300 of those arrested.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican and stalwart Trump supporter, praised the raids.

As far back as 2005, workers at the Koch Foods poultry plant in Morristown, Tennessee, were complaining of the dehumanizing conditions at the plant. When one female worker asked a supervisor for permission to go to the bathroom, “the supervisor took off his hard hat and told her, `You can go to the bathroom in this,’” a worker told New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse.

Mississippians across the state have rallied on behalf of the arrested workers, collecting food and other items for families suddenly left without breadwinners and means to survive.

ICE is good at rounding up poor Mexican poultry workers but apparently maintains a hands-off policy on people like Koch Foods CEO Joe Grendys, a billionaire on the Forbes list of richest Americans. A raid at Koch Foods’ Fairfield, Ohio, plant in 2007 led to 161 arrests of undocumented workers, leading to a $536,046 fine for violation of immigration laws. The company maintains that it uses the federal E-Verify database to make sure its employees have proper documentation.

The nation’s political elite in the White House and Congress have no interest in arresting potential financial supporters like Joe Grendys. In fact, they see it as their mission to make life easier for him. Koch Foods is not related to the billionaire Koch brothers, although they seem to share the same attitudes about workers and worker rights.

“Laws are passed to manipulate labor, not help immigrants,” Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler told YES Magazine writer Adam Lynch recently.

Back in 2017, the Republican-led U.S. Senate, backed by President Trump, voted to eliminate a mandate to disclose injuries and even fatalities that occur at the worksite in poultry plants, which are among the most dangerous worksites in the United States. Three years earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture came up with plans to allow poultry plants to increase the speed of processing birds from 140 to 175 per minute. A coalition led by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., led the fight against the new rules. In February of this year the USDA proceeded with allowing the greater speeds.

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Editor's Note: this story first published on the authors blog, LaborSouth.blogspot.com.

Image Credit: the feature photo of a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raid Mississippi chicken processing plants – photo taken by US Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee (public domain/ICE.gov); the photo of Joseph Grendys is from the KochFoodsInc.com site (promotional/fair use).

Joseph B. Atkins

Joseph B. Atkins

Joe Atkins, professor of journalism, has taught at The University of Mississippi since 1990. He teaches courses in Advanced Reporting, International Journalism, Ethics & Social Issues, Media History and Labor & Media. Atkins is the author of Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press, published by The University Press of Mississippi in 2008, and editor/contributing author of The Mission: Journalism, Ethics and the World, published by Iowa State University Press in 2002. He organized an international “Conference on Labor and the Southern Press” at Ole Miss in October 2003. A statewide columnist and 35-year veteran journalist, Atkins was congressional correspondent with Gannett News Service’s Washington, D.C. bureau for five years. He previously worked with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi. His articles have appeared in publications such as USA Today, Baltimore Sun, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Progressive Populist, Southern Exposure, Quill and the Oxford American. His blog on labor issues in the South is LaborSouth.blogspot.com. He can be reached at [email protected]. Joe's stories often appear on Labor South, Facing South, The Progressive Populist, In These Times, and AlterNet