The Padrone System and Padrone Banks

By John Koren

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This is in outline the present-day padrone system in its more favorable aspects as it exists among the Italians of the Eastern and Middle States. Its perpetuation does not, as is commonly assumed, depend solely on fresh accessions of immigrants. The laborer working for $7 a week under a boss who boards him must count himself fortunate if he can save more than one-half of his earnings. A number of men who were interrogated on this point assured the writer that their weekly savings during the part of the year when work is plenty did not average over $3. Protracted periods of idleness ensue, a goodly share of the earnings are sent to Italy or squandered, and the laborer may face the winter months with empty pockets. Yet he need not fear starvation, nor is he forced to seek charity. The boss or banker-boss is again ready to tide him over until spring conies. He invites him to the boarding house with the understanding, of course, that he shall enter the boss's employ at the first opportunity. Largo tenement houses owned by bankers can be pointed out on Mott and other New York streets that servo as winter quarters for the cafoni. There they are huddled together, a dozen or twenty in one room, in violation of all sanitary regulations. Like conditions prevail to some extent in Boston. It is not incredible, as the writer has repeatedly been told, that the bosses encourage their guests in all manner of extravagance in order to get a firmer grasp on their future earnings. Another method by which the boss retains his hold on the men is by employing them one week and keeping them idle the next, under the pretext that work is scarce. The boss then appears to the men in the role of a truly benevolent master. This plan is pursued by one of the most notorious bosses in New York, who is reported to keep from 100 to 200 men constantly on hand in his boarding houses.

The abuses under the padrone system are likely to assume an aggravated form when, as frequently happens, a gang of men is sent to a remote country district in charge of a padrone who acts as boss, boarding master, and foreman of the job. Then cruel treatment of the hands is not uncommon. Cuff's and kicks have to be endured, and the laborer may at the end of several months' hard work find himself possessing funds barely sufficient to take him back to the place whence he came. Or the boss may abscond with the men's wages, leaving them to shift for themselves as best they can. Such happenings, while by no means rare, seldom obtain publicity. Poverty and lack of intelligence keep the victims from prosecuting the absconder, although some complaints reach the authorities. The mining regions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia have harbored a number of the worst padroni. They are said to have accomplices in each gang, who share the spoils in return for protection when threats of violence are made and act as " council of war " in case of trouble.

Among the minor bosses in the large cities are some who subsist in part by swindling their countrymen in the manner indicated by the following incident, which has been thoroughly investigated: Boss went to a banker in Mulberry street, New York, choosing a moment when about a dozen workmen were present. He showed a telegram to the banker, who at once proceeded to translate it about as follows: "We need 100 men; wages $1.60, railway fare $8. Must start work day after to-morrow. If necessary, pay $1.60." Those present signified their willingness to accept the employment offered, and the compari  (so the bankers' runners are called) were sent out to secure the full complement of men. The bossatura was settled at $3 per head. The other customary stipulations having been made, the men were told to assemble at the same place in the evening, when the journey would be undertaken. Before the departure the banker, carefully counting it out in the presence of the men, handed the bossatura and passage money to the boss. In Jersey City tickets to a station a few miles beyond were distributed among the men, who were told not to quit their places until given the word to board a certain train. The boss absented himself on some excuse and returned to New York. Having waited hour after hour, it at last dawned upon the men that they had been duped. The banker, to whom an appeal was made the next day, protested his innocence. Had they not seen him give the money to the boss! Had he not spent his time in securing them work without any compensation ? But rather than to risk further unpleasantness he would present them with $1 apiece. This closed the incident, (b)

In general, the Italian padroni may be divided into three classes: (1) The small bosses (bossachi), who are by far the most numerous and subsist by securing odd jobs for individuals and small groups or by resorting to petty fraud in various ways; (2) the bosses who regularly supply contractors and others with laborers in considerable numbers, and (3) those who are in the employ of corporations or act both as bosses and independent contractors. The last class is very small. In New York not over half a dozen men belong to it, in Philadelphia about four, and in Boston three or four. These men are usually graduates from class . It must be said of them that they treat their subordinates far more humanely than do the others. The petty bosses have the reputation of being the worst camorriati — that is, extorters of money. By the best informed the number of bosses in New York and the adjoining cities is placed at about 2,000. This is the minimum estimate and includes those who may be regarded as assistants to the bosses.

So far as could be learned, not a single one of them undertakes to supply any but unskilled labor to contractors doing work in New York. Careful inquiry among the labor unions did not bring to light a single instance showing that the organized trades are affected by the padrone system. It may happen that strikers are temporarily replaced by Italian hands, but how far the latter in such cases may be controlled by bosses is not known. Few Italians have joined the unions. The so-called Italian International Marble Cutters Union of New York was only recently organized. It is understood to be dominated by bosses and does not affiliate with any American organization. For work in the country and small towns the bosses are ready to furnish all manner of skilled workmen, such as masons, carpenters, stonecutters, machinists, etc.

Formerly the bosses drove advantageous bargains with the street- cleaning department of New York. When proof of citizenship was required before employment could be given, they were said to make the same papers do service for many or to present fraudulent documents.

The contention that the Italian laborer is always underpaid or receives less wages than the market price seems unfounded so far as employment in the large cities is concerned. Exceptions are perhaps not wanting. Satisfactory data on the subject of wages paid under the padrone system were unobtainable. In outlying places, however, the newcomer may not infrequently be found to work for less than the price of local labor, but then it is the contractor rather than the boss who reaps the advantage. On the other hand, the Italian is everywhere handicapped by reason of having to pay the bossatura and other commissions to the boss.

So far all efforts made in New York to exterminate the padrone system have failed, so firmly is it rooted. Within a few years the bosses have prevented legislation at Albany aiming at the amelioration of the lot of the Italian laborer. Another instance is that of the Italian Independent Labor Union, organized for the purpose of protecting the immigrant " from the tyranny and extortion of that class of employers or labor brokers called the bosses or padroni, to prevent his being held in involuntary servitude in the United States, and to assist and care for those who may require help because of misfortune, poverty, or sickness." Within a short time the membership of the union rose to more than 1,000, who paid annual dues of $2 each. The bosses made war against it, assisted by the suspiciousness and strongheadedness of the laborers themselves, who, according to their own countrymen, always take the worst advice. The society is now defunct. It should be said that the attempts at reform have suffered for lack of intelligent backing from outsiders.

To make the Italian bosses and bankers shoulder the entire blame for the existence of the padrone system were manifestly unjust. That contractors and other employers are more or less in league with them can not be doubted, no matter what their nationality. It has been established beyond denial that they sell boarding privileges, ask a bonus from the padrone for giving employment, refuse to pay for overtime, and the like. Cases have, moreover, come to the surface showing that American employers Lave adopted padrone methods, sometimes on a large scale. A single incident may suffice as an illustration. The writer has before him a list containing the names of 23 Italians and the sum each one paid to an American connected with one of the largest railroads in New York in hopes of securing permanent situations. The total amount aggregates §1,605, and ranges from $40 to $115 per man. The men, at least some of them, were put to work for a short time and then discharged. The dishonest official, be it said, finally suffered the same fate, but his victims obtained no further satisfaction. The matter was brought to the attention of the courts without being settled. This was the St. John's Park case, which is typical of many.

It is obviously impossible to state with any claim to accuracy what proportion of the Italian population of New York and adjoining municipalities is subject in some degree to the padrone system. One may not wander far from the truth by placing it at two-thirds, at least, of the male population. An attempt to express the matter in figures would be the merest guesswork, since one can but guess at the number of Italian-born inhabitants of the places in question. The census of 1890 gives New York 39,951 Italians, Brooklyn 9,563, Jersey City 1,495, and Newark, N. J., 2,921, a total of 53,930. From July 1, 1890, to April 30, 1896, 323,621 . Italian immigrants arrived at the port of New York, or not far from twice as many as the total Italian-born population in the United States recorded at the last census. But a great many of them had been in the United States previously; of the arrivals from July 1,1893, to December 31, 1895, for instance, no less than 21,692. Another bewildering factor is the number of Italians who annually leave our ports for the home land. Dr. Senner estimates that during the last-mentioned period of two years and a half 62,678 Italians took passage from the United States, a number greatly exceeding that of the persons who arrived for the first time. The estimate is based on returns furnished by the steamship companies. All that can be said, therefore, without assuming what is not capable of proof, is that the Italian residents of New York and vicinity are more numerous than ever, and that a majority of them, since they are unskilled laborers, feel the touch of the padrone system.

The Italian colony of Philadelphia, which is estimated at over 20,000 (census of 1890, 6,799), is third in point of numbers. Here also the bosses have intrenched themselves, but do not appear to carry things in such a high-handed manner as in New York. Several reasons may account for this. Few immigrant ships carrying Italians reach Philadelphia, perhaps four or five in the course of a year. Many of those joining the colony are not strangers to the ways of the country, having lived for some time in New York and Brooklyn, and come with an idea of more permanent settlement. The Italian quarter contains only a few tenement houses of considerable size, smaller homes being the rule, many being owned by the occupants. The politicians have taken a goodly number of Italians in hand, had them naturalized, and formed them into clubs. While this may not per se be equivalent to greater protection from the bosses, it has brought the Italian into prominence and opened avenues of employment beyond the immediate control of the bosses. Thus the Italians seem to have an exclusive claim on the work of keeping the streets of Philadelphia clean. Yet, since this work is allotted by contract, and no Italian is engaged unless he is a member of an organization known as the Societa Operaja di Mutuo Soccorso, which is controlled by the bosses, the padrone system shows its hand here, too, although in a milder form. The bosses are mainly active in sending laborers to inland towns and, during the summer, to the fruit farms of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. In proportion to the population they are not so numerous as in New York, nor are they so powerful. Their methods and ways do not differ essentially from those already described.

The Italian colony of Boston is the fourth in size, with over 15,000, according to popular estimate (census of 1890,4.718). Its increase has largely taken place through direct immigration. That the padrone system is extensive in Boston has long been known. Its features are practically identical with those noted. The many bosses, mainly bos sachi. continue to supply nearly all there is of unskilled Italian labor to the railroads and for the multitude of contract jobs carried on in the cities and towns of Massachusetts. Many instances of the crooked doings of the bosses have been printed in L'Amico del Popolo, the onetime organ of the Italian Workmen's Aid Association of Boston. Probably in no other city in the country have efforts led by people outside the colony been made to dislodge the bosses and improve the condition of their victims. So far the attempts of the society just mentioned have not been wholly successful. It has, however, succeeded in calling public attention to many abuses, found employment for a number through its own bureau, and secured the enactment of an important legal measure. Formerly the Italian laborers, on finishing a job, would often find themselves defrauded out of the last week's wages, which were withheld by the contractor. In order to recover the amount it was necessary for each man to bring a separate suit against the employer. But since the court expenses would amount to at least $13, they naturally preferred to lose the week's wages. The law enacted at the suggestion of the Italian Workmen's Aid Association and approved May 28,1890, enables persons to whom small sums are owing for manual labor to pool their issues by allowing one man to sue for the recovery of the money due all. The full text of the law follows:

"In actions of contract for the recovery of money due for manual labor two or more persons may join in one action against the same defendant or defendants when the claim of no one of such persons exceeds the sum of twenty dollars, although the claims of such persons are not joint; and each of such persons so joining may recover the sum found to be due to him personally. The claim of each person so joining shall be stated in a separate count in the declaration, and the court may make such order for the trial of issues as shall be found most convenient and may enter separate judgments and issue one or more executions, and may make such order concerning costs as in its opinion justice may require."

In addition to the difficulty experienced in keeping alive a feeling against the padrone system among the impulsive Italians after the first indignant outburst has subsided, a serious obstacle to reform is found in the shifting character of the population. A local Italian pastor states that membership in his congregation lasts, on an average, something over two years, which period would thus fairly indicate the average length of residence.

The existence of the padrone system in other large cities, notably Baltimore, New Orleans, and Chicago, is well established. San Francisco, notwithstanding its large Italian colony, seems to form an exception in this respect, principally for the reason that the cost of transportation across the continent is a barrier to a considerable direct immigration and precludes the arrival of the impoverished and least intelligent. Since a majority of Italians come to San Francisco after a more or less protracted residence in this country, it may be supposed that they have outgrown the necessity of seeking employment through bosses of their own nationality. Hard times, causing the practical suspension for several years past of works requiring unskilled laborers in large numbers, would also have made a successful operation of the padrone system impossible,

It is interesting in passing to observe the degree of notoriety the system has attained in the labor world. The letters received from labor leaders by the United States Commissioners of Immigration, in reply to a circular requesting information about the padrone system, and printed in their report for 1895, disclose these facts: Out of 30 letter writers 8 did not answer the questions put, 4 confessed themselves as ignorant on the subject or as not comprehending the term " padrone," 1 states that the system has not reached his locality, 2 that it does not exist in their respective trades, while 15 claim knowledge of it. Among the latter are representatives of labor unions in the large cities of Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, Louisiana, and California. Several of them mention that the system flourishes among the Armenians, Poles, Hungarians, and probably other nationalities represented in the United States as well as among the Italians—a statement of undeniable truth—but not one asserts that it has affected the organized trades except in times of strikes.

The peculiar system of banking in vogue among the Italians of this country deserves special attention. Its close alliance with the padrone system has been intimated. The boss supplies a large shave of the patronage of the banker, at least indirectly. More often than not the boss requires his men to bring their savings for deposit with a named banker under threat of discharge. The banker frequently shares the bossatura and other moneys extorted from the laborer. The men who work under a boss during the summer fill his boarding houses in winter, etc. How invaluable the banker becomes to the boss has already been shown. Many of the present-time bankers are said to be retired bosses. Hence their institutions may also for this reason properly be called padrone banks, although they are not known under this appellation.

It has not been learned who came first, the bankers or the bosses. The former, however, have some excuse for their being in the fact that, in addition to the many facilities their places of business afford the Italians, as will presently be shown, they supply a distinct want. The laborer apparently cares little for ordinary rates of interest. A bank is to him not a place where his savings are increased, but simply a big safe where they may be kept intact until he wishes to send them to Italy. The American savings banks are unwilling to have deposits withdrawn at the end of two or three months after the fashion of the Italian laborer, and they do not make it a business to transmit small sums abroad. Aside from the difficulties of language, which often debar the Italian from our own institutions, the savings banks do not seek his patronage as a depositor.

The Italian quarter of New York contains about 150 so-called banks. Most of them are found on Mulberry, Mott, Elizabeth, and Spring streets, some having branches in Little Italy uptown. Probably not a single one of them has a legal status under the banking laws of the State, not excepting the half dozen or so which are held to be honest in all transactions. Many of the bankers are presumably ignorant of the law, since they can neither read nor speak English. The number of these banks is not surprising when it is known that it does not require capital to open one. Not long ago a man who had just fitted up banking apartments sent a pitiful appeal to a friend requesting a loan of $10, as he had no money to buy food with.

Most of the banks in New York are shabby little affairs, run in connection with lodging-houses, restaurants, grocery stores, macaroni factories, beer saloons, cigar shops, etc., but under imposing names, such as Banca Roma, Banca Italiana, Banca Abbruzzese, and the like. Other signs read simply Banchiere, Cambio Valute, and Avvisi Legali. Some try to attract attention through a display in the windows of American currency, Italian lira notes, a few gold pieces, along with worthless duplicate drafts, old express receipts, and Confederate money. How multifarious are the occupations of the Italian banker may be gathered from the translation below of a letter head obtained from one of the profession:

"Remittances in any sum whatever to all the post-offices in Italy, Switzerland, France, and Austria, in paper money, gold francs and florins, in the quickest and safest way. Telegraphic orders. Drafts, payable at sight, on all the principal cities of Europe. Notary public; legal advice free. Ocean and E. E. tickets. Intelligence office. Shippers by package post. Custom-house brokers. Depot for Marsala and table wines. Depot for S. Antonino tobacco, imported, prime quality."

Most bankers have their own compari, one to four, according to the magnitude of the establishment, who maybe seen loafing on the premises at all hours. How they facilitate the operations of the boss we already know. For the rest, their business is to attract customers and, by singing the praises of the bank, induce the laborer to deposit his money there, buy steamship tickets, or obtain any favor he may call for. They are also the ones who are to meet the new arrivals and conduct the immigrant to the wharf or railway station. The relation of the banker to his customer is of a peculiarly confidential nature. He writes the laborers' letters and receives them, the post-office branch of the bank being one of the most important. This work, called franco bollo, is invariably paid for. He becomes, furthermore, the cafoni's marriage broker for a compensation, and acts frequently as his legal adviser. It is thus plain that the banker has exceptional opportunities for petty extortions. His principal business as a banker is, of course, to exchange, remit, and receive money on deposit. On turning over his dollars to the bank, the laborer is not given a regular receipt, much less a bank book, but a slip of paper on which only the sum deposited is written. After several deposits and withdrawals have been made it commonly happens that the figuring of the banker does not agree with that of the customer. Since the latter is generally unable to read, it is easy for the banker to persuade him that lie is mistaken. In any case a mistake can not be rectified after the customer leaves the bank. The profit remains with the banker, and the other, childlike as he is, soon forgets all about the possible injury done him. In exchanging money, both for immigrants and emigrants, dishonesty on the part of the banker is very common, but not easily detected on account of the ignorance of the average Italian. A third transaction which must be described is that of remitting money to Italy. No complaint is made because bankers allow themselves a liberal fee for this service. But it sometimes happens that the money never reaches its destination. Yet the banker retains a reputation for honesty, for did he not give the customer back CO cents or a dollar, saying that it represented the exchange (cambio), and that he would not be guilty of taking more than his dues? Or, if this excuse is too threadbare, the banker may say that the steamer carrying the mails has foundered, or, better, he blames the American post-office, against which he will at once bring suit for the recovery of the loss. It is, in fact, a part of the policy of the Italian banker to instill suspicion of American officials into the minds of his countrymen for the purpose of retaining their trade. Few of the bankers are licensed to conduct an employment office, still this is generally one of their most important occupations. As notaries they find opportunity for charging all sorts of imaginary fees under the pretense that so much must be paid for registro, protocollo, and the bollo scrittura. Their legal advice is either of a selfish nature or else plain humbug. They are, of course, not members of the bar. The services of the banker as a peacemaker are sometimes sought, or he may be said to sit as a kind of justice of the peace. Finally, the banker is the one man who can furnish bail when one of his countrymen is arrested. Some establishments have a fixed tariff for giving bail or going on bonds. An instance was discovered in which $100 had been charged for furnishing bail to the amount of $200.

It is an old story that several Italian bankers have no other purpose than that of waiting until they have accumulated large deposits, when they abscond, leaving no trace behind them. In order to draw customers, they promise an unusual rate of interest (in a recent instance 12 per cent), while they stipulate that no deposits shall be withdrawn within a specified time. During the progress of this investigation two bankers in New York left for parts unknown, taking with them, so it was reported, over $50,000 in workmen's wages. The affair created hardly a stir. No effort was made to find the defaulters, and they left no bondsmen who could make good the losses. The apprehension and conviction of a defaulting Italian banker is an exceedingly rare occurrence.

There is a class of bankers in New York occupying a still lower level than the one described. Their places are the haunts of the most degraded of their countrymen. The laborer is always made welcome there. A back room is reserved where he may drink and gamble by day and sleep at night. To this chamber he may bring women. The banker gets rent from one and a share of the profits of the other. It is notorious that liquor is sold in these places seven days in the week.

It is interesting to note that an Italian savings bank is about to be opened in New York under the auspices of certain bosses.

Statements relative to the vast sums sent out of this country through the medium of Italian banks should be taken with a grain of allowance for imaginative facts. The Senate Committee on Immigration, sitting in 1893, is said to have "developed" the fact that in an average year the Italian banks of New York send abroad from $25,000,000 to $30,000,000. It is known that other cities, even those in the immediate vicinity of New York, have their own Italian banks; furthermore, that the prominent Italian business man does not patronize the institutions on Mott and Mulberry streets. The vast sums mentioned must thus be taken to represent the earnings of laborers and small trades people. Assuming, therefore, that New York in 1892 contained 50,000 Italian wage earners, which would very nearly equal the total Italian population of New York, Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Newark together, according to the census of 1890, with no allowance for women and children, the average savings of these 50,000 would have to reach the sum of $500 per head annually in order to foot up the lesser of the two sums referred to. It is needless to say that the average gross earnings of the Italian in this country is much less than $500 per annum, let alone his possible savings.

Philadelphia has about twenty-five Italian banks. Most of them are to be sought in the so-called slum districts, on South Seventh street and near-by thoroughfares. In general character they are on a par with the better of the New York banks. One of them, a very uninviting place, advertises itself as representing two well-known strong banks under the control of the Italian Government (rappresentanti del Banco di Napoli e del Banco di Sicilia). A few years ago eight or nine of the bankers in Philadelphia defaulted at brief intervals. This gave a setback to the others and induced many Italians to trust their savings to American institutions. About 4,000 members of the colony are now stated to be regular depositors in ordinary savings banks.

The banking business carried on in the Italian colony of Boston has gained a good deal of notoriety through the attempts made at exposing its abuses. It, as well as conditions generally, is pictured as follows in a recent public appeal of the Italian Workmen's Aid Association of Boston, a society under the supervision of prominent Americans:

"There are more than 15.000 Italian residents of Boston. Of these the greater part consists of peasants from the country districts of Italy, who are almost entirely unacquainted with the language and laws of our land. They are thus in a condition of such helplessness as makes them ready victims to the extortion and abuse of a small fraction of their number, who, under the pretense of finding the employment or of investing their savings and making transmittances money to Italy, are simply robbing them and keeping them in squallor and misery. The former, as padrones or bosses, charge extortional commissions whenever employment is provided, and sometimes ever exact it without furnishing the work. The latter, under the name bankers, demand extravagant rates for the transmission of money, and even then, in many cases, neglect to forward the sums that have been entrusted to them."

To meet the situation, the association just referred to opened a bar of its own. Thus far it has not been able to compete with the Italy banks on an equal footing, partly for lack of funds, which allow it keep open at intervals, while the others are accessible at all time especially on Sundays, the banking day par excellence, and part because it has not yet won the necessary confidence of the Italians.

Of the majority of the Italian banks in Boston it is enough to say that they are neither better nor worse than those of the other cities There are about twenty of them all told. Notwithstanding the many lessons had, the forgetful Italian continues to trust them with his.

Owing to the movement of the population and the fresh immigration the least scrupulous of the bankers experience no difficulty in finding customers who have not yet learned their ways.

End of Article


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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