Tid-Bits About the Early Italian Immigrant and the Padrone System

They crowd into the big American cities, men who have almost never seen a city. Among conditions that they have never known, surrounded by strange people of other races, they build their villages with their "imported" doctors, priests, bankers, etc. In the heart of the nearest city one can find in the Italian colony a Sicilian, a Calabrian, a Neapolitan, an Abruzzian village, all within a few blocks, and each with its peculiar traditions, manner of living, and dialect.

The wages of Italian workingmen are the lowest paid to any laborer in America and yet they succeed in saving enough to send for their families in Italy or to help their relations. The enterprise and thrift of Italians are indicated by statistics which show that Italians own in the city of New York alone more than $100,000,000 worth of real estate, besides having about $24,000,000 saved in banks.

Italians have brought from Italy sturdy, healthy bodies, a frugal, simple way of living and the simple traditions of village life, and a great many lose all these valuable assets in a few years. The women and children are those who suffer most from the new conditions under which they are compelled to live. No more bright sun, life in the open air, coarse but unadulterated food; the filth of the slums, the limited and crowded space for their housing, and the cheap canned goods break down even the strongest among them. How many times have I seen young Italian women newly arrived with rosy cheeks and the golden light of the Italian sun in their eyes become in a few months faded and worn from the effect of changed conditions. In place of the "Festa Campestre," (the village dance,) the "Festa Patronale," (the feast of the patron saint,) America offers to the Italian man the curse of the saloon, the poisonous atmosphere of cheap moving pictures, and the dangers of the slum dance hall.

The Italian peasant is patient, hard-working, kind-hearted, and by no means unintelligent. He may be backward, ignorant, prejudiced, and superstitious, but in laboriousness and in the strength of his family affections he has few equals. They are frugal, their lives simple and their wants few. A cheerful disposition enables them to bear up against many troubles."

"Sicilians possess energy, fortitude, extraordinary intelligence, with patience and long-suffering. They are warm-hearted, industrious, frugal, with polished manner, and sober. Strong in hate. A Sicilian friend is a jewel; he is willing to do anything and everything for a friend. The Sicilian, is silent, he is more gentlemanly in manners and appearance, but he is vindictive and savage, and intolerant of all restraint.

Italians cling to their language and traditions with the tenacity which the English show for theirs. (1)

The Padrone
The majority of the 1,000,000 and over Italians who have come to this country since 1893, have had little or no capital, are uneducated, and, in consequence, manual labor is all they can do. In addition to this, the most of them, having been peasants at home, naturally drift to work in the open air with pick and shovel when they come to this country.

There is an abundance of this kind of work to be done and the Italian seems to be particularly fitted for it, but some medium is necessary by which he can be brought in contact with the employer and his work; this is done by the padroni or labor contractors. These men make it their business to supply laborers in any numbers. They are thus useful to employers, who as a universal rule would not themselves know how to get Italian laborers in any numbers, and who would find it impossible to proceed by picking up one man at a time.

The padrone has been very useful also, all in all, to the Italian laborer. The immigrant, in his ignorance of the language, could not find employment and could not look after himself in any way if he did. The padrone steps in and finds him employment, boards and lodges him while at work, collects his wages, writes his letters, acts as his banker, and engineers any and all dealings which the laborer may have with the concern for which he may be working. The padrone has therefore served a very useful purpose to both employer and laborer, and also to the public.

But the padroni as a class for there are some honest and intelligent men among them—are not scrupulous in their dealings with the laborers with whom they come in contact. Many of them engage in mean and petty swindling of one kind and another. Universally they overcharge the laborer for what they do for him. They never do anything to improve the condition of the laborer or to teach him to better his own condition for himself. They are ignorant men trying to make as much money as possible out of other ignorant men, who from their inability to speak the language and their foreignness, are peculiarly helpless. And there can be no great difficulty in judging the result.

To alter or remedy these conditions is no easy task, for it is necessary to possess some method of getting together the laborer and the work to be done, while improving the evil attributes of the padrone. Worse evils than those existing would ensue if the padrone were wiped suddenly out of existence.

It would seem that the best remedy for cases of actual swindling is through the criminal laws, and in these cases the laborer should have the assistance of public officials, charitable societies, etc. Even then, and with such assistance, his ignorance will be constantly a hindrance to his obtaining justice.

Overcharging arises from the dependence of the laborers on the padrone for provisions. In the majority of cases where a padrone places a gang of men at work, he conducts the commissary; and in such commissaries, where the work is located out of town, the padrone carries everything in stock which is necessary to the needs of the laborer, in the way of both provisions and clothing; and in a great many cases, or, perhaps, we should say the majority of cases, the prices charged to the laborer are exorbitant. Also, short weight or count is given, or the goods are of an inferior grade but sold at the prices of first-class goods.

This matter of overcharging could in part be regulated by passing laws to control the price of board, supplies and medical service to laborers when in contractors' camps. But overcharging cannot be prevented wholly except by the growth of a higher conception of their duty to the laborer on the part of employer and padrone. And it must be in this same way, too, that the general neglect and indifference to the laborer's welfare in other matters than overcharging on the part of the employer and padrone, can be rectified. The public is interested in preventing laborers from being treated like machines and allowed or forced to live like brutes. In a republic everything like this tends to debase the average character of the people, on which alone the welfare of the republic depends.

Accordingly, the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants has actively entered into the business of supplying employers with laborers and of conducting labor camps through trustworthy agents of its own. In these camps, the laborer will not be overcharged, and every effort will be made so that he can lead a healthful life, and not be 'brutalized in any way. Naturally, the entrance of the society into this field has been difficult of accomplishment on account of the opposition which it has met from the unscrupulous padrone and through the ignorance of the laborers, who do not as yet fully understand and appreciate that the society is doing this work solely for the betterment of existing conditions. Employers, also, have been hard to reach, as, for the past fifteen or twenty years, they have been in the habit of getting such uneducated labor as they have needed from the padroni, and they naturally look at the matter from a strictly business point of view. So long as the padroni can supply them with the desired number of men at the right time, they are not over particular, and in fact cannot be, as to the treatment accorded the men in the ramps. The society has had the opportunity of demonstrating to both employers and laborers that labor camps can be conducted decently and on a legitimate business basis, and it has hopes that eventually its place in the regard of laborers will .become firmly fixed. The main difficulty in weaning tine ignorant laborer from his padrone is his habit of believing that the padirone is the only one who can supply his needs. This is repeatedly proved by the fact that no matter how badly one of these padroni may treat his followers they return to him for employment and advice in preference to all others. The padrone fully realizes this weakness and makes the most of it on every occasion. In consequence of this blind belief, it has been extremely difficult to win the confidence of the laborer, thereby making it additionally hard to demonstrate to the employer that the society can render him as good service in the matter of getting him men at short notice as do the padroni. The society feels confident, however, from experience, and from the growing interest by the particular laborers with whom its representatives have come in close contact in labor camps, that the desired object will be accomplished, that the laborer and the padrone will both become sufficiently educated and enlightened so that the laborer will look out better for himself, and the padrone for him. (2)

Padrone System and Signification of the Term

The term " padrone " is originally an Italian word signifying proprietor, boss, or master, or a person who has either legal or moral power over others. A wife in Italy often refers to her husband as the padrone, and the father, or head of a family, is known as the padrone of his household. In countries where the laboring classes are wholly under the control of their employers, the term " padrone " is applied to the manager, superintendent, foreman, or proprietor of any mercantile establishment, and signifies that in the person designated as padrone absolute authority is vested to control employees. He has the right to prescribe the character of the work that each laborer shall perform, to increase or decrease at will the hours of work and the wages received, and to punish him physically at times. By custom and usage the padrone is regarded by laborers as the rightful person in authority, so that when quarreling among themselves, or when having disputes or differences to settle, they apply to the padrone, and generally abide by his adjudication of their affairs.

In the early period of Italian immigration, ignorance of the English language and of the conditions of labor in the United States compelled laborers of that race to depend entirely upon their employers, who were, as a rule, contractors of the same race and fairly familiar with the language and labor conditions here. Some of these employers boarded the laborers in their charge and paid them a certain stipulated amount as wages, with the understanding that anything received above the said amount on account of their labor should go to the padrone. Among Italians the term padrone was used by the laborers to designate their employers, and the term " padrone labor" came to be applied to all workmen who were exploited by their leaders or padrones and who submitted to conditions which laborers fully comprehending their rights would not be likely to tolerate. In this way the term " padrone system " came to embrace laborers of other nationalities among which conditions existed similar to those found among the Italians. (3)

Padrone System

The padrone system is one step removed from contract labor. Those who work under this system permit a leader, the padrone, to make their contracts, yet the agreement is not enforceable at law. It is enforced only by their own necessities. The system started first with Italian laborers. The padrone brought over laborers from Italy, advancing the cost of their transportation, and hired them out to a contractor. He rented to them the shanties in which they lived while at work, and sold them supplies of food.

Italian laborers formerly made contracts with their padrone to serve him for one to three years, and occasionally for a longer period.1 The report of the Immigration Investigating Commission of 1895 shows that Italians and other foreigners had been imported "by the cargo" into the Michigan iron- mines and worked on the padrone system in the early 'nineties. This was probably the time when the padroni were the most numerous and flourishing.

Formal agreements among the laborers and the padroni are being discontinued, and for this there are perhaps three reasons. First, because the alien contract labor laws make their agreements not only unenforceable at law, but actually punishable if discovered by the government. Secondly, spontaneous immigration from Italy has now become so great that it is not worth the padrone's while to risk a conviction under the contract labor laws, so that he is now merely a middleman. Thirdly, there is the condition of dependence on one side and assistance on the other. The padrone does not establish his control over a man, strictly speaking, either by force or fraud. Dr. Rossi calls the padrone system "the forced tribute which the newly arrived pays to those who are acquainted with the ways and language of the country." The system is founded on an inequality more deeply rooted than the usual inequality between the employer and the laborer. The races which work under this method are ignorant and accustomed to be commanded, and it is on their dependence and lack of knowledge that the power of the padrone rests. Seen from the standpoint of the immigrant, a remedy is to be found not so much in legal rights, as in better education, American habits of thought, efficient employment bureaus, and more adequate administration of existing laws.(4)


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Tid-Bits About the Early Italian Immigrant
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: (1)Social and Religious Life of Italians in America by Rev. Enrico C. Sartorio, A.M.; Christopher publishing House-Boston, 1918; (2) Charities; Vol. XII January-September 1904, The Charity Organization Society-New York, (3) Abstracts of Reports of the Immigration Commission; Government printing Office-Washington 1911 (4) Principles of Labor Legislation by John R. Commons, LL.D. and John B. Andrews, Ph.D. Harper & Brothers Publishers-New York 1920
Time & Date Stamp: