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Business vs. Labor: A Louisiana History Lesson

McNeese State University library
Office trailer after the "Jupiter incident", January 15, 1976

How has business grown so influential in state politics? As the legislature prepares to debate issues like tax reform and equal pay -- which often pit businesses against workers and other individuals -- it’s time for a history lesson.

Let’s start with Louis Reine, president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO.

“A union is no more than a group of people who decide that, as an organization, their voices together are louder than they are individually,” Reine explains. “And a union is the model that you see other organizations operate under, whether it’s LABI, the Chemical Association, the Chamber of Commerce.”

Steve Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, might disagree with Reine’s innocuous definition, considering the oppositional past LABI and the AFL-CIO share.

“Why did LABI start in the first place? You had a group of frustrated businesspersons who were tired of getting shot at,” Waguespack says, with a rueful chuckle, “And tired of having to pay off somebody to hire somebody.”

In the mid 1970s, organized labor had the clout, with a boom in industrial plant construction along the Gulf Coast. To stay on schedule and within budget, industry tried to hire non-union workers.

“There was some violence, literally, on some worksites,” Waguespack says.

In the summer of 1975, a group of AFL-CIO union workers beat up non-union workmen along the road to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve being constructed in Hackberry. There were similar incidents at refineries in Houston. It escalated until, in January 1976, a gun-toting union mob using heavy machinery rammed the fences and then the office trailers at Jupiter Chemical in Westlake. Firing their weapons, they killed one non-union worker and wounded five others.

Waguespack says that was the final straw for the companies.

“And a group of business leaders decided to get together and try to push very hard to pass right-to-work legislation in Louisiana.”

It took less than 6 months to pass that law, which says employees can’t be required to join a union at any Louisiana workplace.

With their initial goal accomplished, Waguespack says LABI had to evolve.

“Over the years, it’s become the state’s Chamber of Commerce and the state’s manufacturing association. And every year they try to figure out what are the largest impediments to free enterprise? You know, what’s the wolf closest to the door, and how do we go shoot it and figure out, you know, how to get around it?”