New Orleans Victor Bussie had two careers as president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO for over 40 years with half at the zenith of the body’s power and influence in the state and the other half on its downward cycle. First elected in 1956 for a long time Vic was known with labor as the only state fed president who had been active from the time of the merger of the AFL and the CIO on an ongoing basis. Perhaps symbolically he passed away recently at 91 on the eve of another Labor Day several weeks ago.
There was a time when Vic Bussie, as the head of Louisiana’s union members would have been counted on the one hand of the four or five most powerful people in the state. It spoke so his skills of course, but mainly to the huge size of the Louisiana labor movement which fought back the effort to establish so-called “right-to-work” in the 1950’s in his greatest victory when he beat back the legislation in 1956 until his greatest defeat when right to work passed twenty years later in 1976 with Governor Edwin Edwards signature. In that 20 year period Louisiana stood alone among all the southern states as the one place where a union shop was legal.
In that period when there was really only one party in Louisiana, the Democrats, and the seniority system was firmly in place in the U.S. Congress, there were lions on the loose like Senator Russell Long, running the Senate Finance Committee, and controlling the purse strings for Presidents and their legislation, and the vestiges of the Long machine and its powerhouse in northern Louisiana with Earl Long in the Governor’s chair. In fact it was Vic Bussie who got the call to drive Earl to the Texas mental institution when his behavior got so out of line as governor that the local paper would memorably report on his walking down the airport concourse with a stripper on his arm and taking a whizz in a potted plan along the wall. In a Louisiana political history footnote Uncle Earl was voted into the U. S. Congress while still committed to the Texas institution. The stories that Vic could tell!
When my local union joined the Louisiana AFL-CIO it meant a drive to Baton Rouge with a Vice-President of the Service Employees (SEIU) to commit that we would bring all of our members into the state federation with a “fair count” in order to have Vic’s help and support when we would need it. This was no empty promise since even then in 1984 with right-to-work firmly in place since 1978, the door was not closed yet and the Louisiana state fed had the highest per capita membership fee of any state fed in the country, bar none. You paid until it hurt and it hurt not to pay.
Vic would run for reelection every year at the annual convention without opposition. Whenever he was asked when he would retire as the decades wore on, he would only say, that as soon as right-to-work was repealed, he would call it a day. Unfortunately for Vic and all of Louisiana labor that day never came.
Over the decades that I dealt with Vic, whether he was with us or against us, he was never anything other than charming. There was a lost art to it. He was always glad to see you and he would always promise to “do what he could,” but over time it became clear that there was really only one way to make sure something got done. One sat in the anteroom to his giant office for the hours it took, and then one narrowed the list to the one or two things that were most critically needed for your members, and then you sat in his office until it got done. It took me a while to learn that in Vic’s world it only was real if he did it right then, and he did it in front of you. Once I learned the rules, it all worked. Not knowing the rules meant constant frustration.
Even as the power of labor in the state declined and ebbed, Vic’s system worked because he was smart, shrewd, and knew everyone. He also had managed to get good governors to appoint him, as a representative of labor, to boards and commissions that controlled money and jobs, like the bonding authority and the LSU Board of Supervisors, and others. Labor might be losing, but you still had to go through Vic to get it done, and he used that leverage effectively if you waited long enough and the stars came together.
Those days are long gone for labor now in Louisiana, and we just hope and pray that in other places the lessons that Vic Bussie managed and taught are learned before it’s too late, and all there is left for labor is the memory of the good times, when there were many lions that could roar.