Violence, Vetoes and Votes

Victor Bussie and the battle over the right to work in Louisiana

by Michael Martin

 

Joe Hooper died in a pool of his own blood, lying on the floor of a portable office trailer that had been ripped in two by a bulldozer carrying a handful of gun-wielding men. It was early on January 15, 1976, and Hooper had ventured from his Lake Charles home to the Jupiter Chemical Plant, where he hoped to get hired on at the still-under-construction ammonia facility. It would have been his first stable employment in weeks; his wife and two young children were depending on the promise of a steady income. Instead, the gaping gunshot wound in Joe’s chest left them widowed and fatherless.

Hooper’s death was no isolated, random incident. His murder was part of an ongoing struggle between rival organized labor factions, and it played a significant role in the evolution of the relationship between Louisiana labor and industry.

What became known as the “Jupiter Incident” marked the climax of a struggle over whether the Jupiter plant would be an AFL-CIO shop, governed by the rules and pay-scale of Louisiana’s dominant labor organization or a maverick shop under Local 102 of the American Federation of Unions. The plant’s owner, Robert Kerley of Arizona, had initially brought on board AFL-CIO crews, but he had switched over to Local 102 workers following a contractual dispute. Kerley expected repercussions, but, as he later said, “The worst we feared was mass picketing….”

A more destructive course of action was on the minds of some members of the local AFL-CIO, however. Between 75 and 100 of them showed up outside the gates of the Jupiter site at sunrise the morning Joe Hooper died. With a commandeered forklift leading the way, they crashed the complex, flipping cars and trucks and tearing into two trailers, the armed men on board firing hundreds of rounds. One of those shots felled Joe Hooper. Five other men were left wounded. The attackers sped away in vehicles they had left outside the plant’s now-crumpled gates.

That April, a Calcasieu Parish grand jury indicted 16 AFL-CIO members. The charges ranged from criminal conspiracy to commit aggravated damage to property to manslaughter. By the time the trial began, five of the men had seen their charges dropped, and the newspapers had taken to calling the remaining defendants the “Jupiter 11.” The trial lasted a week, and in the end the jury found 10 of the 11 innocent.

Among those indicted was Harlan Duhon, a member of the state AFL-CIO executive board. As an indicator of how high labor tensions were at the time, the same grand jury also indicted Duhon for his involvement in the brutal beatings of non-union workers at a construction site in Hackberry.

 

The Jupiter Incident preceded the opening of the 1975 Louisiana legislative session by about three months, but its influence on deliberations in the statehouse were profound. For the previous few years, the general assembly had come under increasing pressure to enact a “right-to-work,” or “open-shop,” law that would prevent organized labor from forcing non-union members to join up before being hired for a job. In the aftermath of the violence, and in the period between the handing down of indictments and the trial of the Jupiter 11, the legislature considered, and passed, just such a proposal. The recent spate of violence was crucial in shaping public and political opinion on the matter.

Consideration of right-to-work legislation was nothing new. As early as World War II, business leaders in Louisiana had pushed for a law but failed to make headway. On the heels of peace, anti-union sentiment in Louisiana increased, especially in rural areas, and provided impetus for the legislature to consider a number of anti-union bills during the 1946 session. Representative W. J. Cleveland of Acadia Parish proposed an open-shop bill in two forms: first, as a normal piece of legislation, and second, as a constitutional amendment. Senator A. K. Goff Jr. of Lincoln Parish put forth a bill for “mutual responsibility” that placed restrictions on both labor and management in the use of force during strikes and coercion in negotiations. Cleveland’s constitutional amendment proposition did not make it out of the legislature, but the other bills did.

AFL-CIO President Victor Bussie and his wife Fran pose with Louisiana’s First Lady Margorie McKeithen and Governor John McKeithen, who described Bussie “a very effective, aggressive, intelligent leader” and a “man of great courage.”  Courtesy of the  University of Lafayette, Louisiana, ul press archive

AFL-CIO President Victor Bussie and his wife Fran pose with Louisiana’s First Lady Margorie McKeithen and Governor John McKeithen, who described Bussie “a very effective, aggressive, intelligent leader” and a “man of great courage.” Courtesy of the University of Lafayette, Louisiana, UL Press Archive

Governor Jimmie Davis vetoed Cleveland’s bill, calling it “an interference with the right of collective bargaining,” but he signed into law both the Goff bill and another that forbade workers on strike from receiving state unemployment benefits. Nonetheless, the singing governor, a former member of the American Federation of Musicians who maintained close ties with its leadership, came down clearly on the side of labor by not endorsing the right-to-work bill.

The following year, the U.S. Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which expressly granted individual states the power to create right-to-work laws. Energized, Louisiana business leaders in the late 1940s and early ‘50s made a strong push for right-to-work and, in 1954, the state legislature passed yet another open-shop bill. Introduced by state senator William “Willie” Rainach, the bill made it illegal to deny a person employment because of a lack of union membership. It thus paved the way for the end of closed shops and threatened to severely undermine organized labor’s growing strength in Louisiana’s industrial workplace.

Governor Robert Kennon signed the 1954 bill into law, but only after he met with union leaders, including State Federation of Labor president E. H. Williams. Kennon understood keeping labor’s leaders in his corner was good politics, and he publicly stated his feeling that although any Louisianan should be allowed to join a union, they should not be compelled to do so. Regardless of the governor’s stance, Williams referred to the new law as “class legislation of punitive and restrictive design.”

 

If Taft-Hartley strengthened the open-shop forces, the right-to-work law of 1954 prodded labor, especially the AFL and CIO, to organize and cooperate. In 1955, they joined with other unions to create the Louisiana Legislative Committee, which sought to elect closed-shop candidates to office in the 1956 elections. Soon afterwards, the AFL and CIO merged under the presidency of Victor Bussie, a 37-year-old Shreveport native who had been head of the Louisiana Firefighters Union.

Organized labor’s backlash against the right-to-work law helped propel Earl Long back into the governor’s office. Uncle Earl was firmly in labor’s corner. During his first full term as governor, 1948-1952, he had overseen the repeal of the Goff Act and had mustered his forces in the state legislature to defeat a right-to-work proposal. While campaigning for the 1956 elections, Long strongly denounced the recently passed open-shop law and promised to force its repeal should he win the governorship. Win he did, with a first primary victory. Upon taking office, Long followed through with his campaign pledge.

With the right-to-work law erased from the books, Bussie and the AFL-CIO took steps to consolidate their political power. Over the next two decades, union membership soared in Louisiana, outpacing that of all other southern states. The AFL-CIO rosters alone reached more than 230,000 by the 1970s—up from 110,000 for all unions in Louisiana in the late 1940s—and union members made up a substantial and influential proportion of the state’s overall number of voters.

Bussie worked harder and more efficiently than any other labor lobbyist. He often attended meetings of the legislature and directed members on which way to vote, and his reach extended well beyond simple labor-management issues. “I always took the part as the leader of labor that I should do everything I could to help the families of labor,” he later told an interviewer.

That stance led Bussie to stand up to rabid segregationists in the 1960s. In return, his home and car were bombed. His beliefs also pushed him to lead the movement to reform the state’s mental health institutions and charity hospitals, to lobby heavily for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and removal of the state’s Head and Master law, and to push for increased funding for public education at all levels.

“Bussie is a very unusual man,” state senator Edgar J. “Sonny” Mouton noted in 1974, “one of the brightest people that I have met and I rank him equal with [former Governor John] McKeithen in a type of charisma. McKeithen has a rare talent, where if you put him in a room long enough with anybody, he will mesmerize them … and Bussie is right up there with him.” State senator Ben Bagert Jr. later recalled, “There was a time, especially in the second John McKeithen administration, when practically nothing happened in state government without [Bussie] having something to do with it.”

McKeithen himself called Bussie “a very effective, aggressive, intelligent leader” and a “man of great courage and intellect.” Bagert summed it up more bluntly: “He was the most powerful man in Louisiana, alongside the governor.”

 

Bussie may have been at the top of the political heap by the early 1970s, but those same years saw renewed vigor among right-to-work supporters in Louisiana. Owners and managers of large and small businesses began to work together to push open-shop legislation, at the same time as opposition to unions was growing on a national level.

In late 1975, the Louisiana Manufacturers Association, the state Chamber of Commerce, and the Louisiana Political Education Council merged and created a new lobbying organization, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, headed by Ed Steimel. Steimel, who had been director of the Public Affairs Research Council before this, threw his substantial organizational prowess into effecting immediate change in Louisiana’s labor landscape. The LABI proved to be an effective counterbalance to the AFL-CIO’s lobbying prowess, and its partner, the Louisiana Political Action Council, donated a significant amount of money to campaigns for anti-union candidates. By February 1976, just a month after the Jupiter Incident, the LABI’s executive board chose to push right-to-work with all its might.

At the time, Governor Edwin Edwards publicly positioned himself as an ally of organized labor, but he privately encouraged the LABI’s right-to-work campaign. Edwards understood that, even though Louisiana in the 1970s was riding the crest of the oil boom, the nation as a whole was wracked by high unemployment and inflation, which had caused overall public opinion to shift against unions. Edwards also knew that violent confrontations such as the Jupiter Incident had only undermined grassroots support for organized labor.

By early May of 1976, multiple proposals for right-to-work laws had been introduced in both the Louisiana Senate and House of Representatives. The varying proposals can be boiled down to two variations on the right-to-work theme: first, a legislative method whereby a approval in both chambers, plus Governor Edwards’s signature, would outlaw closed shops; and, second, a proposed constitutional amendment that would need two-thirds approval in both chambers and a majority of votes in a referendum election. The proposals mirrored those of Representative Cleveland from three decades earlier.

On May 11, the Senate voted to refer three proposals to its Labor and Industrial Relations Committee. The House voted to do the same for identical bills in its own chamber. The Labor and Industrial Relations Committees of both chambers were known for being pro-labor, and observers at the time assumed that closed-shop forces had the upper-hand in deliberations. This seemed to be confirmed when, on May 22, the House rejected a right-to-work provision that had been proposed as an amendment to a bill on unfair labor practices.

While deliberations were ongoing, the LABI began television and print advertising campaigns that portrayed right-to-work as an absolute necessity if Louisiana wished to attract new businesses. The ads also portrayed labor leaders, Bussie in particular, as manipulative tyrants with unfettered control over the state’s government. One newspaper ad read “The labor bosses, like Victor Bussie, don’t want a Right to Work law. That’s understandable. It would diminish their immense power and control. …” Another claimed that “The people of the state of Louisiana favor Right to Work by an overwhelming six-to-one but again, it’s the same question. Will the people have their way…or will union boss, Victor Bussie have his way?”

On June 9, the House approved a right-to-work bill and sent it to the Senate, where it was referred to the Labor and Industrial Relations Committee. Three weeks later, the committee reported the bill unfavorably. Outside the capitol “several thousand union folks” cheered upon hearing the news. But the battle was not over. If the committee’s recommendation could be overridden, the full Senate would deliberate on the measures.

On July 6, the Senate voted to override the reports and bring the bills up for deliberation. Governor Edwards, however, asked for a 24-hour delay in order to work out his own compromise proposal, a move that took both Bussie and Steimel by surprise. The governor announced his compromise position before a joint session of the legislature later that day. Backpedaling on his previous public commitment to oppose closed shops, Edwards said, “I think a stable, permanent open shop law for industry seeking new locations especially in the wave of industries that will be coming to the South in the next 20 years is probably an advantage. For that reason, I am going to publicly advocate that you pass it.” The governor must not have felt too strongly about his proposal, however, for later that same day he withdrew it.

The very next day, July 8, 1976, following two-and-a-half hours of debate that was broadcast to about 2,000 union members on the capitol grounds, the Senate voted 23-14 to approve the right-to-work statute. After the vote, Victor Bussie immediately headed outside to tell his supporters that he would ask Governor Edwards for a veto, and if that failed, “We will keep coming back until this law is repealed.” Bussie’s wife, Fran, stood next to him, crying silently.

Edwards signed the bill into law. He later told his biographer that he expected passage of right to work legislation to not impact industrial development in Louisiana—”Plants came to Louisiana because we had natural resources, land was cheap, and other benefits, and Right to Work did not affect them at all.” For a time, it appeared that he was right. The economic boom in the state continued, and even expanded, through the end of the decade, a seeming testimony to the economic benefits of right-to-work.

Bussie saw it differently. “Louisiana’s greatest economic expansion came in the 1960s,” he noted in 1997, “and much of what happened in the late 1970s was already planned before the [right-to-work] law passed.” Then came the economic doldrums of the 1980s and 1990s, and “After 20 years, when are we supposed to see the benefits?” he asked.

The law that Bussie called “our most devastating defeat” has never been repealed. Depending on your viewpoint, that might be a testament to the sacrifice of Joe Hooper and others, or might point to the sacrifice of working folks’ right to collectively bargain.

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Michael S. Martin, Ph.D., is Cheryl Courrégé Burguières/Board of Regents Professor in History at the University of Louisiana Lafayette and director the Center for Louisiana Studies. He is the author of Russell Long: A Life in Politics (2014).

 

 

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