James Petrillo

James Petrillo
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  James Petrillo

The profile of
James C. Petrillio,
President of
The American Federation
of Musicians,

  • I am not a dictator!

    When James Petrillo spoke those words in defense of his actions to a congressional committee in 1948, he had said them so often that he almost believed them, himself.  The 56 year old labor leader had built the best known, highest paid and most militant group of organized craftsmen in North America.  Not a day went by without radio listeners being reminded that a program was, “…made possible through the courtesy of the American Federation of Musicians, James C. Petrillo, President.”  

    If it required a dictator to build that kind of power, Petrillo was just the man for the job. 

    James Caesar Petrillo was born on March 16, 1892, the second son of five children in the family of a Chicago sewer digger.  The struggling elementary school student was given a trumpet at age eight by his father and took lessons at the nearby Hull House.  Although Petrillo later admitted he was, “a lousy trumpet player,” he dropped out of school after nine years, took a string of menial jobs and formed a four piece dance band at 14.  

    Petrillo joined Chicago Local 10 of the American Federation of Musicians in 1918 and took immediately to AFM politics when given the job to organize musicians in Chicago’s Chinese restaurants.  He accomplished the difficult duty in short order and as his reward was elected Vice President of Local 10 one year later.  At age 30 he was elected President of Chicago Local 10, a post he would hold for the next 36 years. Petrillo was gaining more power within the union and was appointed to the AFM’s Executive Board in 1932.

    At the 1940 AFM convention in Indianapolis and James Petrillo, 48, was elected National President by acclimation.  Petrillo held the post until 1958 and proved that no matter was too small to escape his stern rule during his years in office.