Gettin’ Personal in Gettysburg

Of the several places we visited on our first day, the turkey processing and distributing plant with which we began our summer fellowships provided us the clearest platform to voice our grievances. The machines roared. The rooms smelled. The turkeys looked disturbing. Liquids dripped on us. Our senses were fighting against the factory in a multitude of ways. Yet what is perhaps most disappointing is that—when stepping back to a more distanced perspective—nothing strikes me as particularly heinous. Workers’ rights are clearly not of primary importance, but there was little evidence of wantonness in the manner that workers were treated. From what I gathered, this company was attempting to maximize its profits without blatantly breaking any rules. And I believe that this is common practice—with the incidental victimization of workers being an unfortunate corollary.

The turkey plant was in no way an anomaly, and instead family-run, generous businesses such as the fruit processing and distributing plant we visited take on that status. Our tour guide provided us with a story that almost certainly would not have occurred at the turkey plant: when a 60 year old woman who graded fruit turned blind, the company decided not to fire her, instead hiring an additional worker to do her job while she unknowingly glided her way to retirement five years later. Furthermore, the company was advised to change many of its practices to increase profitability, and such advice was outright refused because of the negative impact it would have on workers and consumers. Rather than seeking more money, this company settled with its already considerable profits and provided its workers with proper care.

The question that I think we should be left with, though, is not just how we can rid ourselves of the former and create more of the latter. By only condemning the turkey factory, we regret to examine and understand why it find its conditions acceptable in the first place. The real question is how we can move such companies away from the dubious rules that guide the food industry to the more self-governing rules of the fruit company. How do we incentivize companies, especially large companies, to care about workers and risk a loss in profits? We see in the local Gettysburg community that personal networks between employers and employees—a prime example being a farm where the workers consistently called the owners their family—aid in this effort. Often the road to social justice and equality is forged by breaking down practices that depersonalize others, and I believe that we must continue to analyze such processes of personalization and depersonalization in Adams County—where they occur, how they occur, why they occur—in order to most accurately understand the relation between social injustice, the food industry and migrant workers. Understanding how personalized forms of business are sustained, and could potentially be sustained, in our local community could even allow a template for supporting these practices on a broader domestic or global scale. Community has proved vital for many of the people that I have met at Gettysburg this past week, and it is here where I see a very clear starting point through which I may find answers to my questions.

Darren Spirk ’16