January 27, 1919|
|Died||September 4, 2011
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
|Cause of death||Stomach cancer|
|Resting place||Resthaven Gardens of Memory Cemetery in Baton Rouge|
|Parent(s)||Christopher Bussie and the former Fannie LaCaze|
Victor V. Bussie (// BEW-see; January 27, 1919 – September 4, 2011) was until his retirement in 1997 the 41-year unopposed president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO, having first assumed the mantle of union leadership in 1956. Journalists often described him as the most significant non-elected "official" in his state's politics. Bussie's influence with governors and state legislators became so great in the 1970s that the business lobbying group Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) was established as a counterbalance to the AFL-CIO. LABI won a huge victory in 1976 with the passage of the state's so-called "right-to-work legislation".
Defender of the Longs
Bussie recalled having been born in poverty in the community of Montrose in Natchitoches Parish to Christopher "Chris" Bussie and the former Fannie LaCaze. The senior Bussie was a unionized employee of the Texas Pacific Railroad. Bussie had a brother and five sisters, one of whom, Authree B. Gorrell of Austin, Texas, was still living as of 2011. At some point, the Bussies headed south to Rapides Parish because another sister, Fannie Mae Bussie Heard (1924–2009) of Shreveport, was born in Boyce. Fannie Heard was one of the first female Certified Public Accountants in northwestern Louisiana, having also been licensed to practice in California and Nevada. Bussie, who was half Choctaw Indian, commented on his background, as follows:
- My mother and father struggled to send us to school because of the high cost of school books. There finally came a time when they could no longer afford to buy books for seven children. We children were told that we could no longer attend school.
- That very same year, Governor Huey Pierce Long, Jr., persuaded the Louisiana State Legislature to fund schoolbooks for all children attending public schools. Not only did that mean that my brother and sisters and I could finish our education but also thousands of other children could as well. My family never forgot Huey Long and became longtime political supporters of the Long family.
In 1959, as AFL-CIO president, Bussie checked himself into a mental health facility in Galveston, Texas, as a ruse for the confinement of Governor Earl Kemp Long, who was committed by his wife, Blanche Revere Long and Long's nephew, U.S. Senator Russell B. Long. "It’s hard to believe that I was involved in it. It was a mess. He (Long) could have easily sued me, but that never occurred to me. He was a friend, and I just tried to help as best I could."
Bussie in Shreveport
Bussie, a veteran of the United States Navy during World War II, joined the Shreveport Fire Department and became a leader in the departmental union. He became chief of the Fire Prevention Bureau and the president of the Central Trades and Labor Council. James C. Gardner, who served as mayor of Shreveport from 1954 to 1958, described Bussie as "well-spoken" and his "polite and reasonable manner made him widely sought as the 'labor member' of various civic boards." As a second assistant chief, a position Bussie obtained without waiting for civil service seniority, his signature was required on all certificates of occupancy for commercial buildings, a position of considerable power. Some in the business community accused Bussie of requiring work beyond the municipal building or fire code regulations in order to create more employment within the building trades. To check Bussie, officials activated, as permitted by the city charter, a building code board of appeals to prevent abuses.
Early in 1955, Bussie, acting through the Central Trades and Labor Council during his lunch hour, called a strike of waitresses at Brocato's Restaurant in Shreveport when the company declined to rehire a fired waitress. In retaliation, Shreveport Public Safety Commissioner J. Earl Downs, the older brother of an influential state senator allied with the Longs, C. H. "Sammy" Downs of Alexandria in Rapides Parish, demoted Bussie to the rank of captain and assigned him to a fire station. Bussie took unpaid leave and appealed Downs' decision to the Fire and Police Civil Service Board. After fourteen sessions and fifty hours of testimony, the civil service board voted 4–1 to uphold the demotion, with the lone dissenter being the firefighters' representative. Bussie announced that he would appeal to the courts. Meanwhile, he became the state AFL-CIO president for the remainder of his working career and lived in Baton Rouge. No action was ever taken by the courts in Bussie's appeal.
Gardner said that the demotion "turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Bussie and the labor movement in Louisiana ... He was extremely effective as the Louisiana leader of organized labor and brought a level of influence for labor in Baton Rouge that it had not previously enjoyed.
Bussie's home bombed
On July 19, 1966, Bussie's Baton Rouge residence in the Kenilworth subdivision was bombed, but there were no injuries. Jules R. Kimble, a then 24-year-old proclaimed former member of the Ku Klux Klan, who also claimed to have been the heir to a nonexistent fortune, told police that he had overheard three Klansmen plot the bombing of both the Bussie residence and that of Viola Logan, an African American teacher in Port Allen, the seat of West Baton Rouge Parish. Kimble said the plot was hatched in Kimble's New Orleans home but that he declined to participate in the execution of the plans. It was theorized that the bombing was inspired by Klansmen who favored a state grant-in-aid program to benefit white private academies which would soon mushroom in predominantly black sections of Louisiana with the arrival of court-mandated school desegregation. Kimble was eventually booked with aggravated assault, impersonating a police officer, and carrying a concealed weapon.
Service on boards and commissions
As he had served on Shreveport boards, Bussie also was the union representative over the years on many state boards and commissions, including the Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors, and was the chairman of the Louisiana Public Facilities Authority. On his retirement, a Baton Rouge Morning Advocate editorial concluded, "Bussie might well be the most powerful Louisianan never elected to public office."
Bussie, ever with an eye toward friendly relations with the media, once invited the Morning Advocate managing editor, Margaret Dixon, to address the AFL-CIO convention. He also maintained a highly visible public image for himself.
He served two four-year terms on the Democratic National Committee. President John F. Kennedy asked Bussie to pressure Senator Russell Long, whom Bussie had known since boyhood, to push Medicare through a Senate committee that Long chaired. However, Medicare was not enacted until Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded Kennedy as President.
At the time of his death, Bussie was still a member of the Baton Rouge Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board.
Bussie sues Margaret Lowenthal and Boeing
On October 15, 1985, State Representative Margaret Lowenthal, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Louisiana's 7th congressional district seat in the United States House of Representatives, addressed the Lake Charles Optimist Club at its regular luncheon meeting. Lowenthal claimed that she had been told by an unidentified representative of Boeing that the firm had considered locating a manufacturing facility in Louisiana, but ultimately chose Mississippi because of Louisiana's unstable political climate and its longstanding problems with public education. Lowenthal said that she was told further by the Boeing representative that, "'As long as you have a man named Victor Bussie sitting in Baton Rouge, calling the shots for labor, we don't need to be in your state.'" Her remarks were telecast over Lake Charles television.
Bussie filed suit against Lowenthal and Boeing alleging that the statements were false and were made with actual malice. Bussie alleged that as such the statements damaged his reputation and held him up to public contempt and ridicule and caused him embarrassment, humiliation, mental suffering, and anxiety. Lowenthal claimed that the statements had been made to her while she was attending a cocktail party given by the Louisiana delegation to the National Conference of State Legislators.
Bussie fights right-to-work
The Louisiana State Legislature passed a right-to-work law in the 1952 session at the urging of then Governor Robert F. Kennon. Gardner was a freshman member of the Louisiana House at the time and voted for right-to-work. In 1956, however, when Gardner was mayor, the legislature repealed the law at the urging of Governor Earl Long. Organized labor took the leading role in the repeal, a reflection of Bussie's growing influence in state politics. Indeed, Louisiana was clearly the most unionized state in the American South. Bussie found that rural state legislators wanted farmers excluded from the repeal of right-to-work. Therefore, he endorsed one bill to repeal right-to-work and another to restore right-to-work for farmers. "We became the first and only state labor organization in the nation ever to sponsor a right-to-work law," Bussie said. The maneuvering caught the eye of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who penned an editorial saying that Bussie should be expelled from the union for sponsoring the restoration of right-to-work for farmers.
In the 1976 legislative session, right-to-work was again passed by a nearly all Democratic body, a reflection of the growing presence of LABI, which sought to reverse what it claimed had been "socialism" in the heyday of Bussie's influence. Bussie convinced state Senator Gaston Gerald of East Baton Rouge Parish, the chairman of the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, to work against right-to-work. Gerald hence proposed a state constitutional amendment on the issue, which would have raised the legislative bar for passage and required voter approval.
Bussie thereafter never wavered in his call to repeal the Louisiana right-to-work law, which he calls the "right-to-work-for-less." Supporters of the measure, however, insist that it merely protects employees' freedom to refuse to pay compulsory "fees" to a union which they do not wish to join. Twenty-one other states, including all southern states, have such laws.
Bussie claims that the effect of the law has been "to drive down wages, ... particularly in the construction industry." Data furnished by the United States Department of Labor and the Louisiana Department of Labor show that construction wages in the state have sharply increased relative to the national average since passage of right-to-work. In 1976, Louisiana construction hourly wages were 77 percent of the national average. By 2000, Louisiana construction wages had risen to 96 percent of the U.S. average.
Mark Mix, senior vice president of the National Right to Work Committee in Springfield, Virginia, noted that the same trend is evident in manufacturing. U.S. Department of Labor data show that Louisiana manufacturing hourly wages has risen from 102 percent of the national average in 1976 to 108 percent in the 21st century. Because the cost of living in Louisiana has been traditionally lower than in other states, construction workers' real, disposable income is above the national average.
Bussie said the decline of labor unions in Louisiana began in 1976, when the state Legislature narrowly approved right-to-work legislation that was pushed by Edward J. Steimel, the founding executive director of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Bussie once called right-to-work “the most misnamed, deceitful, misleading piece of legislation ever introduced.” Bussie and unions argued that right-to-work was meant to weaken unions so businesses could lower wages. Right-to-work proponents said that the legislation was needed to keep unions from forcing employees to join and pay dues. The fight culminated with the 1976 passage of the legislation when nearly 15,000 union members protested outside the State Capitol.
“That is when wages started going down in Louisiana,” Bussie said. “It was tough, very disappointing.” Bussie said that prior to right-to-work, Louisiana had among the most skilled workers in the nation. Businesses liked the skill of workers, except for those companies that were just adamantly anti-union, he said.
“It was one of the biggest fights in the Legislature of this past century,” Steimel said. He still feels the legislation was needed then. But he said that corporations in Louisiana today are inadvertently inviting the return of stronger unions because workers get paid more in other states for the same jobs. "They’re abusing the power of right-to-work," Steimel said.
Bussie in retirement
At the time of his death, Bussie was married to the former Frances "Fran" Martinez Nolan (born May 6, 1935), herself a political activist, who in the 1980s was a member of the Democratic National Committee. Fran Bussie's parents were John O. Martinez (1906–1990) and Althea Williams Martinez (1914–2003) of New Orleans. Her brothers are Tony and Johnny Martinez. Bussie's first wife, from whom he was divorced, was the former Gertrude Foley (October 15, 1918 – September 16, 2005), who died in Round Rock in suburban Williamson County, Texas.
Bussie was affiliated with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. In 1964, he campaigned even in north Louisiana, a stronghold of the Republican U.S. Senator Barry M. Goldwater that year, on behalf of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who lost that region by a large margin in the last election prior to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which thereafter enfranchised tens of thousands of black voters, most of whom became automatic Democrats. Bussie was even closer to Johnson's vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, who had attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge during the 1930s but failed to win the state's electoral votes in 1968.
In retirement, Bussie joined a group of Louisiana business and political leaders, including the former Republican Governor David C. Treen, in unsuccessfully urging President George W. Bush to pardon imprisoned Governor Edwin Washington Edwards. Edwards remained behind bars until 2011 in the federal facility in Oakdale in Allen Parish because of his conviction of bribery. Bussie supported Edwards in all four of the Democrat's successful gubernatorial campaigns. Edwards once said that Bussie was the singlemost influential person in his administration. Bussie also endorsed at least one Republican candidate in Louisiana, John S. Treen, the older brother of David Treen. John Treen lost to David Duke in the 1989 special election for the Louisiana state House from Jefferson Parish.
In 1994, Bussie, along with U.S. Senator Allen J. Ellender, was among the second round of public figures inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield. He was a recipient of the "Racial Justice Award" given annually by the Baton Rouge Young Women's Christian Association. In 1998, Bussie and former Governor John McKeithen were among recipients named "Living Legends" by the Louisiana Public Broadcasting Service.
In 1997, Bussie received an honorary degree from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, and other such honorary degrees followed. Then Southeastern President Sally Clausen described Bussie as "an individual who has distinguished himself through his quiet but steadfast work for the underprivileged and his strong stand for justice. He has been a lifelong supporter of education, serving as an advocate for quality instruction and a voice of support for higher education... ".
With back problems, Bussie resigned in 2008 from his last state board, the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors. He and his wife, Fran, left their home and moved into the St. James Place retirement community in Baton Rouge. In an interview with the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, Bussie indicated that he would not write a book of memoirs despite his significance to 20th-century Louisiana history. He has been named the 2008 recipient of the "Friend of Education" award from the Louisiana Federation of Teacher, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Bussie said that he had long promoted educational opportunity because college had never been an option for him. Bussie's papers are in the archives of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Victor and Fran Bussie have also completed an oral history for the Louisiana Secretary of State's office.
Bob Mann, LSU communications professor, said that Bussie was more influential than many governors. "I can't think of anyone who wielded so much power for such an extended period of time." Mann described Bussie as "a living, breathing treasure trove of Louisiana's political history" but "so soft-spoken and modest."
Even LABI's Edward J. Steimel, Bussie’s top rival in political organization, had tremendous respect for Bussie. "Many businesspeople felt organized labor was running the state,” Steimel said of his being recruited by LABI to take on the AFL-CIO in the 1970s. "But we were never really anti each other, and we’ve become closer since."
Bollinger Shipyards CEO Donald "Boysie" Bollinger, who sat next to Bussie on the UL System board, said he initially saw Bussie as a Louisiana "icon," who as an aggressive union lobbyist "represented everything that I was opposed to."
But Bollinger said that, after getting to know Bussie, they became friends, and he respected Bussie’s passion for education and worker safety.
Sibal Holt, the first black female president of an AFL-CIO state branch, said Bussie was “the champion of workers” of all colors and sexes. "I sort of viewed him as an octopus with tentacles reaching all over. But he was as sincere as the day is long."
Critics have said Bussie’s and his colleagues’ involvement in so many areas of government amounted to a power grab to keep unions very influential. Bussie is emphatic that he only wanted to serve his state as much as he was able. "It may sound corny, but that’s just the way I lived." He is proud of serving on all the boards without ever accepting any per diem payments or salaries.
Bob Mann said Bussie was just doing his job. “It was his job to place labor in the most powerful positions he could,” Mann said. “He wielded a lot of power, but he did it in a soft-spoken and respectful way.”
T. Wayne Parent, the Russell B. Long Professor of Political Science at LSU and formerly a young staffer at the State Capitol, said that he was often mesmerized watching Bussie lobby the legislature. Lawmakers would look toward Bussie when certain bills came up, and the labor president would nod "Yes" or "No." Parent said that Bussie "really did represent the quiet strength labor can have behind the scenes."
Sally Clausen, the state commissioner of higher education, saw Bussie as her political guide. Clausen remembers Bussie’s small, "dungeon-like" office. Yet people would flock to him as soon as he entered a room. "I’ve never known someone as altruistic and humble, and still so powerful," she said.
Bussie said he had a good relationship with every governor from Earl Long to Murphy J. "Mike" Foster, Jr., with the exception of Democrat-turned-Republican Buddy Roemer. Bussie remained close to former Governor Edwin Edwards. A few years before his incarceration, Edwards flew in from a vacation to attend Bussie’s 1997 retirement dinner. "I said, ‘Well Edwin, that’s the first time you ever paid for anything out of your own money,’" Bussie joked.
Bussie died of complications from stomach cancer at the age of ninety-two at Baton Rouge General Medical Center-Bluebonnet on the Sunday before Labor Day 2011. In 1989, Bussie had heart by-pass surgery, and in 1993, he lost a kidney to cancer. Bussie was survived by his second wife, "Fran" Bussie of Baton Rouge, who was formerly married to Michael Quinn Nolan, Sr. He had two surviving daughters from his first marriage to the former Gertrude Foley: Deanna Love, of Wimberley, Texas, and Carolyn B. Huff and husband David, of Round Rock, Texas; stepchildren Tara Nolan Messenger and husband Terry and Michael Quinn Nolan, Jr. (1960–2013), until his death the owner and president of Healthcare Management Companies, all of Baton Rouge; six grandchildren, and three step-grandchildren. Services were held on September 9. 2011 at the First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge. Interment was at Resthaven Gardens of Memory Cemetery on the Jefferson Highway.
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