California Institute for Rural Studies

Episode 14: Looking Back to Look Forward: How the US Forgot about Farmworkers’ Right to Retire

Looking Back to Look Forward asks why in California– which has been the home of farm labor movements– aging farm workers are not guaranteed any help in their retirement. The story centers farmworker voices and provides a historical approach to understand why little progress on this important right has been made. We dig into the history of how farm workers were excluded from key protections granted other kinds of workers in the New Deal-era National Labor Relations Act.

This show was co-produced by Jennifer Martinez, in collaboration with Cal Ag Roots. Thanks to the 11th Hour Project for supporting Cal Ag Roots!

We’re excited to introduce you to a new voice on the Cal Ag Roots podcast– Jennifer Martinez. The next few Cal Ag Roots episodes will all be hosted by co-producers who have been working closely with Cal Ag Roots Project Director Ildi Carlisle-Cummins to bring you hidden histories of California farming. 

Here’s how Jennifer describes this podcast episode:

Looking Back to Look Forward unearths important history that is relevant today, as farmworkers are growing older in the fields. Despite this, little attention has been paid to the challenges farmworkers face when they reach their later years. In this episode, I had the privilege to speak with seven farmworkers throughout Kern County and Oregon about their looming retirement plans. Most told me retirement is uncertain and will become another step in their career path, acting as a means for extra income to make ends meet. Most farmworkers lack a pension plan outside of Social Security. Still, about 48 percent of workers do not even qualify for these benefits due to their documentation status. This is unfortunate, given that farmworkers face unique challenges with financial insecurity, meager access to healthcare and essential services, hazardous working conditions, and deteriorating environmental quality. 

Although there have been significant strides to improve the lives of farmworkers, many of the challenges faced today are remnants from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1930’s New Deal policies. Notably, section 152(3) of the National Labor Relations Act did not extend federal protections for overtime pay and the right to unionize to farmworkers and domestic workers, at the time of a predominantly black labor force. Passed at the heels of Jim Crow, Southern Democrats felt giving black workers support to organize, meant their economic systems would be threatened. To pass the deal, Roosevelt had to comply with the Southern Democrats’ anti-black political maneuvers. 

Gutting these core farmworker protections in a food-system that has become global, has made advocating for a just retirement arduous. In this episode, with the great help of storytellers, advocates, and scholars, I explore whether we can make a system that was built on an exploitative arrangement can produce a dignified retirement system. 

We titled this episode “Looking Back to Look Forward” because locating the battle for a dignified retirement requires a multigenerational perspective that unites us in numbers for a common purpose across borders. The struggle for better farmworker retirement is a global fight but is rooted in local experiences and local advocacy strategies. 

As guests on these lands, demanding an equitable path forward means recognizing that where we stand today was shaped by the struggles others took on yesterday. I am indebted to the advocates, scholars, and storytellers that have never let up the fight as truth-tellers. 

I am thankful for the farmworkers that generously let me into their homes. They continue to work diligently to put food on our table, even when they struggle to put food on theirs. Throughout the production of this podcast, I met many farmworkers whose bodies fall to rigorous working conditions, but yet they raise up again. Including my mother, who also suffered a work-related injury. They are the ones who bear the consequences of our political inaction. 

As a product myself of the complicated history of the San Joaquin Valley, I hope this story spurs dialogue on ways we can implement policy to make a dignified retirement a possibility.

Photo is of Lola Martinez, Jennifer’s mom and a farmworker in Bakersfield, CA.

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