The Footloose Labor System
Between the 1850s and World War II, millions of workers participated in a system of continuous labor migration that drove the development of the Pacific Northwest. Western industries relied on short-term workers because of their seasonal and economic cycles. These industries were often located far from urban centers and thus relied on a highly mobile pool of North American, European, and Asian workers to turn the Northwest’s abundant natural resources into wealth, an arrangement I call the footloose labor system. In order to manage workers’ movement within and across United States borders, employers turned to immigrant labor contractors and employment agencies to bring order to this chaotic labor market. But those agencies did little to settle the high labor turnover, and instead, exerted increasing control over migrant workers. By the mid-twentieth century, white workers had largely risen out of the system, leaving migrant labor to Asian, and increasingly, Latinx workers who have come to represent “migrant workers” in today’s America.This dissertation argues that the presence of both hobos and Asian workers in the footloose labor system dynamically shaped the conditions of the labor market, and together, cemented a racialized migrant labor system in the Pacific Northwest that would come to be dominated by Latinx workers in the second half of the twentieth century. Placing labor migration—and the labor brokers who engineered the footloose labor system—at the center of the story shifts our perspective to see that hobos and Asian immigrant workers existed in the same labor market dominated by employers who relied on footloose workers. From the point of Northwestern employers and labor brokers, migrant workers, whether they were born in Kansas, Greece, China, or the Philippines, proved useful only if they made a business profitable. Employers continued to hire both white and Asian workers through labor brokers into the 1920s. But white migrant workers increasingly sought jobs outside of the footloose labor system as new technology in agriculture reduced the number of available jobs and post-World War I politics put a greater emphasis on homeownership and conformity. White workers' departure left the most precarious and exploitative jobs to Japanese, Filipinx and eventually Latinx workers. The footloose labor system always depended upon a highly mobile pool of workers who were kept on the fringes of society to do the difficult, cheapened, and necessary work of turning natural resources into wealth.