A padrone (from the Italian padroni for “patrons” or “bosses”) was a middleman in the labor trade, helping poor immigrants obtain transportation to North America, jobs upon arrival, and basic needs in an alien society. Though most often associated with Italian immigration during the 19th century, the labor middleman was common in many ethnic groups from colonial times, especially in arranging contracts for indentured servitude. With industry largely unregulated before World War I (1914–18), it was easy for labor bosses to take advantage of poor, uneducated immigrants. In organizing labor gangs to fill contracts negotiated with railroads and other companies, padrones did provide jobs and often advanced money for transportation or other essentials, but they also charged fees for every transaction and sometimes required their clients to purchase goods from their own stores. It has been estimated that more than half the Italian labor in large U.S. cities during the late 19th and early 20th century worked under the padrone system.
As progressive legislation was passed and immigrants in the wave of new immigration found more family, friends, and social contacts to assist them upon arrival, the role of the padrone changed from labor boss to economic adviser. Often well connected to economic and political leaders, the padrone was frequently able to help clients qualify for mortgages or improve their chances of moving up the business ladder. As Italians and other new immigrants became increasingly assimilated into American society after World War II (1939–45), the role of the European padrone declined. Labor brokers continued to play a significant role in the lives of poorer immigrants, especially those from Mexico, Central America, and Asia, though the modern padrone was seldom as well connected to the community as he had been early in the 20th century.