Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 331-332
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Reinventing Free Labor:
Padrone and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-1930
Reinventing Free Labor: Padrone and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-1930. By Gunther Peck (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000) 293pp. $54.95 cloth $19.95 paper
Acquiring labor to exploit natural resources was the key to the economic development of the Americas. By the late nineteenth century, railroads and steamships had made it possible to recruit unskilled immigrant workers from all over the world. Getting the workers to remote western mines and construction sites required the services of middle-men skilled in manipulating immigration bureaucrats, corporate hiring officers, and their own countrymen. The most infamous of these middlemen were the padrones, who charged steep placement fees and, at times, managed to keep workers in virtual debt peonage. For those caught up in the padrone system, the condition of labor was anything but free.
Peck is more interested in dissecting the padrones' operations than in criticizing their conduct. Looking at three case studies--Antonio Cordasco, who provided Italian workers to the Canadian Pacific Railroad; Leon Skliris, who supplied workers to the Utah Copper Company; and Roman Gonzalez, who recruited Mexican workers for the railroads and sugar-beet growers--he portrays the padrones as bicultural fixers who negotiated tricky logistical, legal, and cultural barriers on behalf of their men. How the men felt about the padrone system, and how [End Page 331] they coped with the conditions of contract labor in an alien land, is explored in the second half of the book. The Italian and Greek workers fared the best, becoming politically savvier and "whiter" with the passage of time. Mexicans also made progress, as when migrant families used automobiles to escape dependency on labor agents. By 1930, the padrone system was essentially dead, though, as Peck remarks in the epilogue, vestiges of it can still be found in industries that hire unskilled immigrants on a piecework basis. Thus, free labor remains an "unstable fiction" (235)--above all, for those whose ignorance of English and the legal system makes them vulnerable to exploitation.
Peck draws upon the literature of social history, labor history, and legal history, as well as widely scattered archival sources, to tell the story of transient workers and their padrones. He ranges across geographical boundaries as easily as those of sub-disciplines. The single most impressive feature of this impressive book is the way in which it decenters United States western history, treating the American West as part of a larger economic and social system stretching from the Italian quarter of Montreal to central Mexico to hungry villages throughout southeastern Europe. The padrones made their living as "entrepreneurs of space," organizing and profiting from the vast "commerce of migration" (47).
Peck devotes much space to discussing the meanings of manhood, community, and free labor for both the padrones and workers. He presents these meanings as contested, shifting, and often contradictory. Workers' rights are "double-edged," their strategies of resistance "crosscutting" (224). Peck seems never to have met a synonym for ambiguity that he didn't like. By contrast, he has relatively little to say about the physical dimensions of the workers' lives, such as mortality rates and accidents, or what happened to those who fell ill. In a brief discussion of violence, Peck mentions that Greeks in Bingham, Utah, were arrested less often for breaking the law and disturbing the peace than American-born residents--a conclusion based on a review of an unknown number of cases covering just one six-month period. (The same appendix shows Italians to be heavily overrepresented in assault arrests, a detail unmentioned in the text.)
This book's one methodological weakness is that its statistics are not especially revealing or well integrated into the narrative. In its defense, however, transient workers are among the most elusive of historical quarry. Peck has pulled together a remarkable amount of information about their travails in the North American...