Remembering a Southern labor legend

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

Victor Bussie, longtime Louisiana labor leader and a legendary figure in the Southern labor movement, died at 92 a year ago this month in Baton Rouge, La. I interviewed Bussie at his home in Baton Rouge back in February 2006. Here's a column I wrote from that interview. I thought now might be a nice time to remember a special friend of working folks.

BATON ROUGE, La. – Labor patriarch Victor Bussie, confidante of presidents, senators and governors, saddens at a half-century-old memory of a politician and friend who gained national notoriety for exploits that included an affair with a French Quarter stripper but who was simply "Uncle Earl" to the working people of Louisiana.

Bussie was with Earl Long in the late 1950s when the three-time governor's mental breakdown forced his family and friends to send him to a mental institution in Galveston, Texas. "He had been crying all the time for grape juice. He loved grape juice. We'd bring him some, and he'd pour it all over himself. He looked horrible. … It made me realize if it could affect a person in the position of governor … it could affect anybody."

It was one of a hundred tales the 87-year-old Bussie told during a recent visit related to a book-in-progress on the Southern labor movement. As president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO from 1956 to 1997, the trained firefighter withstood many a firestorm during a tumultuous time in history. A key player on the political as well as the labor scene, he recalled President Kennedy once summoning him to the White House to get him to convince U.S. Sen. Russell Long, D-La., to support the bill to establish Medicare. Bussie’s lobbying transformed Long from a powerful opponent to a leading champion.

"I said, 'Senator, I've come to tell you the AFL-CIO is not going to support you any longer. You're blocking a program that's more important to us than any other thing else you could have voted for or against.' … Russell Long helped pass the bill."

Bussie offers the perspective of long years in the trenches when he looks at the working lives of Southerners today and yesterday. Like Claude Ramsay in Mississippi, he saw his state AFL-CIO suffer major defections -- 40 percent of the membership in Louisiana -- because of his strong stand in support of civil rights during the 1960s. His home was once bombed by Klansmen.

He worked with Earl Long and others in keeping a full-fledged, anti-union "right to work" law--which critics call a "right to work for less" law because of its long-term effects of keeping wages and benefits down --  off the books in Louisiana during the civil rights era. This was a rarity in the South. The state finally passed such a law in 1976.

Still, the movement that Bussie and others fought so hard to preserve is today at its lowest ebb since the 1920s.  Union membership has dropped from a post-World War II high of roughly one-third of the workforce to approximately 13 percent. Last summer the defection of the Teamsters and other major unions from the national AFL-CIO split the movement. Meanwhile, the transformation of the U.S. economy from a manufacturing to a service base continues unabated, leaving many good-paying union jobs in the dust.

Also continuing unabated is the anti-union assault by business groups such as the so-called "Center for Union Facts" -- an organization led by former tobacco industry lobbyist Richard Berman that has begun running full-page ads in the New York Times and other leading newspapers vilifying unions.

Still, the statistics and campaigns don't deter the optimism Bussie feels about the movement. The high-priced campaigns can't kill an idea -- the idea of working people joining together to have a united voice on issues that affect their working lives.

"People are gradually beginning to realize there is no strength without an organization," Bussie said. "They are beginning to realize what can be done to them if their enemies are given full control."

(Photo of Bussie in his Baton Rouge home by Joe Atkins via Labor South.)