Luigi Antonini (seated) and E. Howard Molisani (at podium), the son of Eduardo Molisani

James Petrillo
James Petrillo, President of American Federation of Musicians, and other notable Italian American labor leaders.

James Caesar Petrillo (1892-1984) was one of the powerful and successful American labor leaders. Born in 1892, the son of an Italian immigrant sewer ditch digger, he grew up in the rough and tumble West Side of Chicago. As a youngster he learned to play the trumpet and served as a bandleader performing at the Hull House, the nation's most famous settlement house operated by Jane Addams. James joined an independent musicians union until 1918 when he became a member of the American Musicians Union (AMU) that was affiliated with the nationally powerful American Federation of Labor (AFL), becoming president of the Chicago local. He also became involved in local Democratic politics and promoted free concerts for Chicagoans in Grant Park. In 1940 James Petrillo achieved a milestone for Italian Americans when he was elected national president of the American Musicians Union, utilizing that forum to become one of the nation's most powerful labor leaders. Defying President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he lead a 27 month nationwide musicians strike over the issue of royalties that should be paid to musicians based on sale of records they made. Notwithstanding Roosevelt's assertion that a musicians strike was harmful to morale in the midst of war, he persisted and won major concessions for his musicians. A trust fund that was established led to the establishment of programs of free concerts throughout the land. Avery tough negotiator, Petrillo resisted new technology such as "canned music" that radio stations desired to use on the grounds this might injure musician rights and security. His adamancy compelled radio stations to hire a quota of musicians. National president of the AMU for 18 years his tenure ended in 1958 when it became evident that the advent of television required a more flexible approach to the role of musicians would be required.

The role that Italian immigrants have played in the American labor movement is rather interesting. On the one hand the historical record seems to indicate that relatively few formally joined unions during the era of mass immigration. This observation overlooks, however, the fact that they frequently participated in small and informal labor activities that were effective in advancing the cause of labor. Long Island Italian Americans in the early part of the twentieth century, for example, were effective in improving wages, hours, and working conditions for employees in such local industries as nurseries, sand mining and construction of the Long Island Railroad. Over and beyond these local examples, Italian American labor leaders were at the forefront of organized labor in major national labor disputes such as the Lawrence strike of 1912 in which Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti were important factors. In the early part of the twentieth century Italian Americans such as Agosto Bellanca, Eduardo Molisani and Salvatore Ninfo were instrumental in organizing garment workers in New York as were Anzuino Marimpietri and Emlio Grandinetti in Chicago. Margaret DiMaggio, Angela and Maria Bambace played important roles in organizing Italian Americans in the clothing industry, and even more well-known was Luigi Antonini. In the second half of the twentieth century Italian Americans such as Anthony Scotto, a leader among New York's longshoreman , Vincent Sombrotto, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, and Arthur Coia in the Laborers International Union, are among the outstanding labor leaders.

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