JOIN EHA

DONATE

Published by EH.NET (May 2002)

Gunther Peck, Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the

North American West, 1880-1930. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2000. xii + 293 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-64160-8;

$20.00 (paper), ISBN: 0-521-77819-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joshua L. Rosenbloom, University of Kansas, Department

of Economics.

Transient workers were an essential element in the development of the American

West in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. They helped build

and maintain railroad lines, operate mines, harvest crops, and perform myriad

other physically demanding seasonal or temporary jobs. Where there were migrant

workers there were almost inevitably padrones. The padrone combined the

services of labor agent — matching workers with jobs — with numerous other

activities such as provisioning the workers, housing them, and acting as their

financial agent to transfer savings back to family members at home.

In this book Gunther Peck traces the history of the padrone and the transient

workers he served through an in-depth examination of the activities of three

individuals: Antonio Cordasco, who supplied Italian laborers to the Canadian

Pacific Railroad; Leon Skliris, who supplied Greek laborers to mining and

railroad projects in Utah; and Roman Gonzalez, who operated a labor agency in

El Paso, Texas that served primarily Mexican immigrant job-seekers. Peck

organizes his account in two parts, each three chapters long. In the first part

he develops a picture of how each of the padrones he studies operated, tracing

the development of their business, exploring their relationship to the

employers they supplied, and describing their responses to the legal

restrictions adopted in this period to control perceived and actual abuses of

the padrone system. In the second part of the book he shifts his focus to the

transient workers, exploring their motivations, the communities that they

built, and the ways in which they expressed grievances regarding their

treatment by the padrones.

Peck begins his account with a consideration of the origins and meaning of the

term padrone. Despite the widespread use of this term by contemporary social

reformers, its origins and meaning remained, as Peck shows, somewhat clouded.

Contemporaries viewed the padrone’s role as an archaic transplant from Europe,

but the term had very different connotations in Europe — applying to the

employment relationship between land-owners and their workers. The American

padrone was a very different figure who emerged in response to the distinctive

characteristics of scarce labor and isolated and temporary employment

opportunities that characterized the American West.

Peck then details the operation of the three padrones who are the focus of his

study. In the second half of Chapter 1 he introduces each through a brief

biography tracing the routes they followed from immigrant worker to padrone,

and detailing their fluctuating fortunes as labor market intermediaries. In

Chapter 2 he develops a more detailed picture of their operations concentrating

on the relationships that the padrones forged with the employers they served.

In the absence of well-developed personnel departments large corporations came

to rely on padrones to perform many of the personnel functions that would be

internalized in the 1920s. As Peck documents, the padrones’ comparative

advantage in locating, organizing, and mobilizing workers was what made their

services essential to the companies they served.

To contemporary social reformers, as to many historians, padrones appeared to

be coercive figures taking advantage of the ignorance of the workers whom they

served to abuse and exploit them. This perception led during the late

nineteenth century to a series of legislative efforts to prohibit these abuses

and regulate the operations of labor market intermediaries. In Chapter 3 Peck

describes these attempts to use the legal system to rein in padrone operations.

His account illustrates the tension in the legal system between freedom of

contract on the one hand, and the desire of the reformers to prohibit workers

from entering into agreements that the reformers perceived as unfair.

Ultimately, though, the chief obstacle to these regulatory efforts appears to

have been that no matter how unequal the division of the gains may have been,

the job-seekers and employers who dealt with the padrones found their services

indispensable in the prevailing labor market conditions of the time.

Beginning in Chapter 4, Peck shifts his focus to the immigrant workers who were

the padrones’ clients. Chapter 4 examines the motivations of the immigrants,

and the obligations and connections that linked them to their homes in Europe

and Mexico. Although Peck introduces new material here, much of what he

describes will be familiar to those acquainted with the general outlines of

late nineteenth-century migration patterns. Chapter 5 considers how transient

workers created communities despite their geographic mobility, and describes

the conflicts that emerged between the more sedentary middle class immigrant

communities and the transient laborers. Padrones occupied an at-times

uncomfortable middle ground between these two groups. By virtue of their

economic success they could claim membership in the more stable community of

settled immigrants. But their work created a community of interest and identity

with the mobile workers whom they provided with employment.

Chapter 6 takes up the issue of worker resistance to padrones. In most cases

transient workers had little leverage with which to bargain with the padrones

or their employers: they were far from home, often did not speak English, and

knew little about alternative employment opportunities. Moreover, they could be

easily replaced by other transient laborers. There was thus little room to

negotiate, and “exit” was the most common method of expressing dissatisfaction

with their working conditions. In a few instances workers sought legal remedies

through the courts, but as Peck acknowledges, such efforts were relatively

uncommon. Occasionally immigrant workers made common cause with labor unions

and used strikes to seek better working conditions. But, as in the case of the

Greek workers who joined the Western Federation of Miners in striking against

the Utah Copper Company in 1912, an event that Peck describes in some detail,

these efforts were mostly unsuccessful, foundering on the availability of

strikebreakers brought in by padrones.

By the 1930s the era of the padrone had ended. Labor agents continued to

operate, but these agents “rarely exercised” in Peck’s words, “the kind of

cultural and political power over the lives of immigrant workers that Cordasco

and Skliris briefly wielded” (p. 229). By this time, immigrants had learned

English, and had greater knowledge about employment opportunities that enabled

them to make do without the padrone’s services.

Scholars seeking to understand how labor markets worked in the era between the

Civil War and World War I will find a wealth of valuable information in this

book. Peck has carefully documented what Cordasco, Skliris, and Gonzalez did in

their role as labor market intermediaries and how they did it. But the

conceptual framework that Peck employs to organize this information is

frustratingly incomplete. In his introduction, Peck situates the book at the

intersection of immigration, western, labor, and legal history. Notably missing

from this list — and from the book — is the perspective of economic history.

Given the important place of labor markets in the narrative this omission is

especially unfortunate.

To economists, market transactions are, by definition, mutually beneficial, and

Peck presents a great deal of evidence to suggest that both workers and

employers who contracted with padrones did so because they viewed these

transactions as superior to the available alternatives. There is no question

that in many instances padrones were able to exploit the relative ignorance of

immigrant workers to capture a large share of the gains from mobilizing labor.

But it is equally true that these workers required the services the padrone

supplied if they were to be able to take advantage of the opportunities

presented by the labor scarcity of the American West. Indeed, Peck documents

that the Mexican-American padrones, whose clients were closest to home, and the

best informed about employment opportunities, were the least able to take

advantage of the workers with whom they dealt. By focusing exclusively on what

he characterizes as the “coercive” nature of labor relations, Peck’s account

obscures rather than clarifies the meaning of the interactions that he

describes.

Joshua L. Rosenbloom is Professor of Economics at the University of Kansas,

and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His

recent publications include Looking for Work, Searching for Workers:

American Labor Markets during Industrialization (Cambridge University

Press, 2002).