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Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and immigrant workers in the north American west, 1880-1930. (Reviews).

Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-1930. By Gunther Peck (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiii plus 293 pp. $54.95/cloth. $19.95/paperback).

In this rigorous and readable study, Gunther Peck provides a new perspective on an archetype of immigration history--the padrone, the immigrant labor contractor who held great power over his workers by controlling their employment. Early twentieth century reformers and some historians have viewed the padrones as villainous Old World relics, corrupt throwbacks to feudal hierarchy and deference trying to retain their power and stature amidst the rapid dynamic of modern industrial capitalism. Peck's padrones emerge as "entrepreneurs of space," providing critical links and a variety of functions in the volatile transnational labor markets that spread out across the North American continent. They exercised cultural as well as economic capital, connecting workers with their families and ethnic cultures, brokering their relations with authorities. Padrones' systems for labor recruitment, migration, discipline, and control represented significant advances, Peck argues, over the extremely decentralized and weak corpor ate efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first half of the book analyzes the sources and creation of padrone power, the second, the system's evolution and eventual disintegration at the hands of both reforming corporate managers and increasingly assertive unskilled immigrant workers.

Peck manages to animate his padrones by focusing on three representative personalities, each operating in a different region and with a different ethnic group. Anotnio Cordasco, an immigrant peddler who aspired to be "king" of the Italian laborers on the Canadian Pacific Railroad operated out of Montreal. Leon Skliris of Salt Lake City, a former laborer, manipulated the market for unskilled Greek workers, particularly at the giant mining and smelting operations around Bingham Canyon, Utah and elsewhere in the Far West. Roman ("El Enganchado," "the Hook") Gonzales traded in his police badge, deciding that the best (and most profitable) way to cleanse El Paso's streets of troublesome Mexican migrants was to place them in low wage jobs.

Focusing on the careers of these individuals not only allows Peck to put a human face on an otherwise abstract phenomenon, it also lends the study a useful comparative dimension. Peck moves among the worlds of Greek metal miners and smelter men in Utah and Nevada, Mexican track laborers and agricultural workers in Texas and on the Great Plains, and Cordasco's Italian construction gangs in British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies. He works the national borders between southern Europe and the three North American states, and the class and racial boundaries between resident populations, the immigrant workers, and the padrones. Immigration historians will find less than they will want on the European and Mexican roots of padronism, but Peck considers these and his argument, after all, is that this was a modern system adapted to the exigencies of the chaotic North American labor market. Likewise, I would like to have known more about the relations between the various ethnic groups and the native born U.S. and Can adian populations. This problem is addressed most directly in discussions of unionization, which tend to emphasize the intolerance and exclusionary impulse of even the more radical native born.

In accounting for solidarity in ethnic working class communities, John Bodnar, others, and myself have tended to emphasize persistence and domesticity, with motivation deriving from a commitment to family and established ethnic community. What did "community" mean among these isolated male transient workers? Peck stresses male gender values, imported from the Old World but transformed in the New. Cultural reproduction, he argues, did not, in fact, require the presence of women and children. He describes several ethnic institutions that contributed to fraternal solidarity, "a sense of community while sojourning (165)," and, ultimately, resistance--the Greek coffee house, the Mexican benefit society, and the "Little Italies" to which Italian laborers returned to join their families in the off season. Each had roots in the local cultures of Europe and Mexico and provided vital recreation and service to otherwise isolated and alienated wage earners. Peck characterizes the resulting consciousness as "transnational ."

The padrone system's decline began soon after the turn of the century and it had largely vanished by the 1920's, except among Mexican agricultural migrants. Peck indicates a number of factors leading to this decline, including the downturn in immigration, the padrone's displacement by more systematic personnel procedures, and particularly legal and organizational challenges by the immigrant workers themselves. The only strike documented at any length is the spectacular 1912 Bingham Canyon strike that featured well armed immigrant miners and elaborate fortifications. But Peck also mentions the success of Dominic D'Allesandro, a former padrone himself, who organized an independent Italian laborers' union embracing thousands in cities along the East Coast between 1902 and 1909. Peck tends to emphasize workers' actions over those of the corporations, but the argument is not entirely persuasive. One gets the impression that the padrone had outlived his usefulness to the corporations for a number of reasons and tha t his demise had more to do with that than successful strikes or legal cases by workers. Peck documents a number of legal and strike failures, including the Bingham Canyon strike.

Peck employs the padrone's story to illuminate problems in several distinct fields. For labor historians, he documents the workings of the labor market and its implications in the daily lives of the immigrant workers and their dependents, but he also probes the interstices between these markets and legal and state structures, business organizations, and the workers' own ethnic cultures, organizations, and movements. Like much of the most recent work in immigration history, the study shuns the analysis of established communities for a study of mobility itself and the national and international forces shaping immigrant life. With his comparative approach and transnational context, Peck aims to "decenter" Western history and challenge its strong tendency toward exceptionalism. For historians of contract law, he shows that labor coercion was widespread in an era of "free contracts" and ostensibly "free labor". Scholars in all these fields can read Peck's book with great benefit.
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Author:Barrett, James R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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