The Padrone System and Padrone Banks

By John Koren
Although the Italian padrone discovered in the United States a field peculiarly suited to his activity, he must be considered as a distinct product of European soil, however much he for a time prospered under American conditions. His prototype is to be sought in the country whence he came, among the camorristi (a) of Naples, perhaps, and a germ of the practice of extortion, which has become known as the padrone system, may be found ill the custom of the Italian peasantry of seeking the good will of the padrone (master, landlord) and others whom they recognized as superiors by habitually making them presents in addition to required payments or fees.

The beginnings of the padrone in this country are not easily traced. He appears, however, to have come into prominence some time after the close of the civil war. The period marking the industrial recovery from the great struggle was it is well known, one in which capital sought labor with almost reckless eagerness. Special legislation was framed to promote this quest. Thus the act of 1864, for the encouragement of immigration, gave manufacturers, contractors, and other employers the right to import foreign laborers under contract. This privilege naturally gave rise to a not overscrupulous speculation in cheap labor; and nowhere did the agents who were dispatched to distant lands in search of workmen find more ready victims than among the unenlightened peasants of Italy. Unlike the inhabitants of Northern Europe, but few of the earliest Italian immigrants came over of their own accord to seek freedom and a home. Usually they were already bound out to service.

The American contractor, wishing to secure the cheapest possible labor wherewith to carry out some new enterprise, would apply to a resident Italian immigration agent (soon to be dignified by the name "banker") for a stated number of men. The latter, having through subagents in Italy collected as many as required, shipped them across on prepaid tickets, for which he received a stipulated commission. On the arrival of these immigrants the agent would make an additional profit by boarding them at exorbitant prices until they could be sent to their destination, the expense being deducted from their prospective wages. The further privilege of supplying them with food and shelter while at work was also commonly granted the agent, and, if a banker, he could from time to time add to his profits by charging unreasonable rates for sending the scanty savings of the laborer to Italy. Finally, he had in prospect a commission on the return passage to Italy when the contract expired, for the immigration then, as now, was chiefly of a migratory character. Few remained here beyond the time of their contract that is to say, seldom over two or three years.

Yet this was not the padrone system as understood by the Italians. Although often subject to much imposition and hardship at the hands of the agent or banker, the immigrant brought hither in the manner described recognized the former simply as a middleman between himself and the contractor, and in no sense as a padrone. The contractor, it should be remembered, invariably belonged to another nationality. The position of the real padrone differed essentially from that of the go-between referred to, or "boss' as he is now called. The padrone acted for himself alone. From serving as an agent for others, whom he perceived to gain so much from taking advantage of the ignorance of the Italian laborers, it was but a step to exploiting them solely for his own benefit. By fair promises and golden tales he persuaded men, women, and children to follow him to the New World under contract to work for a stated length of time, covering generally from one to three years, but extending in some instances to seven years. The men were farmed out to any person who saw fit to employ them at the padrone's prices, usually to engage in the occupation designated by the Italian as sciabola (b)—that is, all work done with the shovel. The padrone boarded his people, received their wages, and gave them the merest pittance in return for hard work, accompanied by much abuse. Forty dollars for a whole year's service was a fair padrone wage. Instances are known in which no larger sum accrued to the laborer after steady employment for two years and a half. The women fared worse, since they were frequently placed in houses of prostitution and never heard of again. The children were sent out on the streets as bootblacks, to sell newspapers, fruit, and flowers, and to beg—all for the benefit of the padrone. Minors were occasionally bought outright from the parents. On the whole, the padrone outrages as depicted in various publications of twenty-five or thirty years ago were not exaggerated. The number of persons who have come to the United States under the conditions mentioned can of course never be estimated, but it is striking to note how many of those arriving after 1870 admit that they were brought here by padroni.

It is this species of semi-slavery which suggests itself to the Italian when asked if the padrone system still nourishes in this country. The answer is invariably negative, and for sufficient reasons. The traffic in women and children was gradually stopped through governmental intervention, but more efficiently, perhaps, through the endeavors of philanthropic organizations. The padrone continued, however, to import men in spite of the law. Indeed, he had by no means ceased to ply his vocation when the first act to regulate immigration was passed by Congress, August 3,1882, and he has only become practically extinct through the more stringent enforcement of the contract-labor law, which was made possible in this instance by the hearty cooperation of the Italian Government. Nevertheless, it is stated on competent authority that a few old-time padroni still linger. They are said to control a number of organ grinders, itinerant harp and violin players, peddlers, etc.

Those directly interested in the manipulation of Italian labor deny also the existence of the first-mentioned form of the padrone system, or that under which a labor contract is made before the immigrant takes passage for America. It is on the whole true that the former system does not exist, but not in the sense that the Italian laborer always comes unpledged or that he escapes all the evils of the former labor contract under what at the present time is termed the padrone system.

Before examining in detail the operation of this system, its extent, etc., it is necessary to consider briefly the magnitude and general character of the Italian immigration in order to comprehend why the system has obtained such a firm footing in this country. The census of 1890 showed the number of foreign-born Italians living in this country to be 182,580. Yet, according to the figures furnished by the Superintendent of Immigration, the number of Italians arriving at our ports from 1873 to 1890 reached- a total of 356,062. The migratory character of this immigration is thus clearly indicated. The majority, especially of the laboring class, come not as settlers, but with the intention of returning to their homes after some years. Many of them, it is true, have come back to us again, but both from the briefness of the stay of these " birds of passage" and their unfamiliarity with the English language they fall naturally and almost inevitably into the hands of labor bosses of their own nationality. They can not shift for themselves nor make an intelligent appeal to the natives. Of late years the Italian immigration has tended to more stable settlement. This is shown by the increase of females and children among the new arrivals. Of the total immigration from 1881 to 1890 of 307,309 only 20.6 per cent were females and 15.3 per cent were children under 15 years of age. These percentages have since increased from year to year, and the period from July 1,1895, to April 1,1896, shows the females to have constituted 30.2 per cent and the children under 15 years of age 19.4 per cent of the total immigration. The proportion of Italian immigrants who have been in the United States before is also known to be steadily growing. The same is true of those who come to join their immediate families or relations, and are thus probably to a large extent put out of the reach of the padroni. During the first four months of 1896 the total number of immigrants from Italy entering the port of New York reached 27,149, of whom 6,948 had been in the United States before, and 6,966joined their immediate families, leaving 13,235 as newcomers without relatives to receive them. The latter were almost exclusively males,

The padrone, then, does not lack for fresh material with which to maintain full ranks. It should further be borne in mind that the bulk of Italian immigration comes from the southern and perhaps least favorably known provinces, Abruzzi, Avelliuo, Basilicata, Sicily, Naples, and Calabria. Most of them are of the peasant class and accustomed to hard work and meager fare, generally illiterate, but of a childlike mind and imagination, quick to forget, and easily led astray by schemers. The majority are booked for New York, comparatively small detachments being landed elsewhere. Nearly all who come for the first time and have no relatives to join make at least a temporary halt in New York. This city has thus, as a matter of course, become the Italian center of the country, and hence the home as well as the stronghold of the padrone system. How the system operates in actual life is told in the following:

Even the Calabrian or Sicilian who finds no friends or relatives to greet him is rarely at a loss where to go on being released from Ellis Island. He brings at least the address of some banker, perhaps that of the man who furnished the ticket on which he came over. The banker has many connections abroad who are able to play more or less into his hands, regardless of the provisions of the contract-labor law, and give the immigrant the cue how to start out on his American career. Should he be penniless, the banker may go on his bond to insure that he will not become a burden to the community, and stands ready to provide him with food and shelter without immediate compensation until work is found. The next step is for the new arrival to look for employment with the pick and shovel, for he is usually an unskilled laborer. Besides, the labor unions might bar the way should he at once seek to exercise the handicraft he may have learned. Employers of his own nationality are scarce, and unfamiliarity with the language prevents him from applying to others for work, so he turns to one of that numerous fraternity who make it their vocation to supply contractors with cheap labor, the bosses. The common laborer, or cafone as he is vulgarly called, recognizes only these middlemen as bosses, not the contractors themselves, unless they happen to be Italians, in which case they are distinguished as boss contractors. The cafone might also hesitate to make a personal search for employment, fearing the vendetta of his countryman boss, who, for reasons that will appear later, often stands high in the graces of the contractors. There is thus little choice. He must go to the boss (the term padrone is no longer used) to get a job or remain idle.

The modus operandi of the average boss is simple enough. He knows the street and steam railway corporations and the principal contractors and others who from time to time employ large forces of men, and keeps posted about new work about to be undertaken. He may deal directly with the representative of a corporation or with the contractor and obtain from them a definite order for a number of men. If unable to fill such order at once, he has recourse to his friend the banker, to whom he states how many men are wanted, the daily wage, the amount of the bossatura (so is called the commission the laborer must pay to the boss as a bonus for obtaining employment), and whether the men shall be boarded by him while at work, etc. A mutual understanding having been reached, the banker posts a notice in his window calling for the number of laborers required, and sends out his runners " to make the men " (fare gli uomini, they say). Enough applicants having been found without much difficulty, verbal information is given concerning the place of work, the wages, the probable duration of the job, the bossatura, and the railway or steamboat fare. When the several stipulations have been agreed to, the men are considered "made," the boss takes them in charge, and eventually ships them to their destination.

The amount of the bossatura depends on the period of employment, the wages paid, and on whether the men are to find themselves, in which latter case the commission is always somewhat higher. Ordinarily it varies from $1 to $10 per man. For an assured job, lasting five or six months, $10 is considered a reasonable fee. The commission rates in New York appear to run higher than in other cities, owing to the more plentiful supply of labor. The bossatura is usually paid in advance and secretly, the boss knowing very well that the transaction is illegal, since he is not licensed to conduct an employment bureau. Taking advantage of his countryman's ignorance, the boss does not hesitate to overcharge the regular rates for transportation. When moving a considerable body of men, he is often able to secure reduced rates, but charges a full first-class fare. If the place of work is in the country at some distance from the starting point, the boss is generally permitted to board the men, or lie buys this privilege from the contractor at so much per head monthly, according to the time of employment and the wages paid. In such a case the men are occasionally sent out from the city a week earlier than necessary, in order that the boss may profit the more. The boarders are threatened with heavy penalties for purchasing elsewhere food or any other article kept for sale at the shanty. Notices to this effect are sometimes posted. The penalty for disobedience is a fine or dismissal. In some instances the boarders are compelled to buy food to a fixed daily amount, under threat of immediate discharge. Generally, however, they are allowed to spend at pleasure. The provisions are furnished in a raw state, and cooked, if at all, by the men themselves. The food furnished by the boss is usually of an inferior quality, and often unfit for consumption. In the table below is given a list of articles sold at a shanty store not very far from the city of New York, together with the prices charged by the boarding master and the average market prices in New York.

The boss is oftentimes prepared to supply other useful things needed by the men, such as underclothing, shoes, and overalls, at fancy prices. A 5-cent postage stamp costs 10 cents at the shanty, and an envelope 5 cents; for writing a letter a charge of from 10 to 25 cents is made, and for bringing a letter from the post-office a similar amount. But there may still be other items of expense to the laborer. The boss must make good the cost of the boarding privilege, and accordingly exacts from $1 to 83 per head for the huts in which the laborer sleeps, although they may have been furnished gratis by the contractor. To the rent are sometimes added regular fees for medical service, drugs, and accident insurance. The latter is of course not effected, and the case must indeed be serious if a regular physician is called in. In some camps weekly or monthly taxes are levied under the heads diritto di Madonna, diritto di lampa, contribution to (literally, the right of) the Holy Virgin and for lamplight.

The Italian laborer submits to these extortions because ho has no other alternative; he must work for the bosses or starve. Complaints are useless, for to whom could he complain? He knows that the boss may welcome a pretext for discharging him and thus have the opportunity of exacting a new bossatura from his successor who is so easily found.

It should be noted that the laborer is frequently unable to pay cash for the articles of daily need. He may have to wait a month or even longer before receiving his dues, from which are deducted the board bill and other indebtedness he may have incurred. The fact that in many instances wages are paid about as often as it may please the employer or boss gives rise to much hardship, since it makes it easier for the boarding master to practice fraud with immunity. ln out-of- the-way places the employee is sometimes paid in scrip, which is taken at a substantial discount by the tradespeople.


a) The Camorritti of Naples were members of a secret orgauization, at one time more powerful than the police, who subsisted largely by extorting money from the peasants. The term camorristi, in the sense of one who unduly exacts money, is still applied to the present-day padrone.

b)Sciabola, a sword, has probably acquired the above meaning oil account of its similarity to our word shovel.

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Website: The History
Article Name: The Padrone System and Padrone Banks
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bulletin of the Department of Labor by United States Dept. of Labor No. 9 March, 1897 Government Printing Office-Washington D.C. (1897)
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