Verónica Martínez-Matsuda, assistant professor of labor relations, law and history in the ILR School, has been recognized for research detailed in her upcoming book about a little-known New Deal program that benefitted migrant laborers.
Martínez-Matsuda has received the 2020 Binkley-Stephenson Award from the Organization of American Historians (OAH). The award is presented for best research paper to have appeared in the last 12 months in the Journal of American History, published by the OAH.
Martínez-Matsuda’s paper, “For Labor and Democracy: The Farm Security Administration's Competing Visions for Farm Workers' Socioeconomic Reform and Civil Rights in the 1940s,” was published in September.
Through her research, Martínez-Matsuda shares a story few know: From 1935 to 1946, the Farm Security Administration’s Migratory Labor Camp Program built and managed labor camps that gave Mexican, Asian and African American farmworker families access to civil and labor rights, as well as a healthy living environment, for the first time.
Safe and sanitary housing, on-site medical services backed by the first national medical insurance plan, nursery and primary schools, recreational programs and lessons in democracy through self-government councils were offered at more than 100 permanent and temporary camps in California, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, Texas and Florida, among other states.
“For those who lived there, it was life changing,” she said. “As dynamic community spaces, the camps were more than just labor centers aimed at improving agribusiness efficiency.”
The revolutionary programs lasted 11 years, then disappeared; farmworkers continue to face deep inequality. In this opinion piece, Martínez-Matsuda urges policymakers and the public to consider farmworkers who are particularly vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic.
After the camp program ended, the federal government’s commitment to migrants “gave way to conditions of precarity and risk that have only intensified in recent decades,” Martínez-Matsuda said. She hopes her book, due out in June, will help show that good working and living conditions for migrant farmworkers are necessary and possible.
“The government intervened to bring about positive reform before,” she said, “and it can do it again.”
Read the full version of this story on the ILR School website. And to hear Martínez-Matsuda discuss her research, listen to her episode on the Organization of American Historians podcast.
Mary Catt is the ILR School’s communications director.