Louisiana had one of those historic moments last week when on Thursday the state’s Democratic Party, despite all the posturing of its top leadership, could not field a single well-known candidate for statewide office — and few for legislative seats.
Then on Friday, Baton Rouge buried legendary labor leader Vic Bussie. He was not just a gentle man of faith at my church who my children liked. He was the last lion of a labor movement that had helped the Democratic Party run Louisiana for decades.
“There’s no question that the Democratic Party is weaker than it has been in the past, because the unions are weaker,” said Robert Kirby Goidel, the LSU professor who heads the annual State of the State survey of residents’ opinions on issues.
“I’m not sure the Democrats can win elections without some sort of union component,” Goidel said.
Until recently, the calculus for winning statewide office, after a century or so of one-party rule in Louisiana, Goidel said, was to garner the black vote plus about 40 percent of the white vote. Unions, many of whose members worked in the plants along the Mississippi River, and south Louisiana Catholics provided those white votes.
That was the winning calculation for Edwin W. Edwards, who gave the eulogy at Bussie’s funeral.
Goidel said Louisiana voters always have trended conservative, regardless of political party. Over the years Republicans focused on social issues, like abortion, advocating positions with which a number of Louisiana working people agreed, he said.
Once they crossed over, those voters stayed GOP even though their new political home argued other positions that worked against their economic interest, Goidel said.
That anti-union position has been embraced for years by businessmen hoping to minimize the influence of organized labor, not just in Louisiana and the United States, but around the world, Goidel said. The rhetoric has gelled over the years around familiar themes of workplace stagnation, labor intransigence and corruption among union leaders, he said, the repetition of which increased acceptance as economic conditions changed.
“There is nobody more conservative than I am,” said Neal Miller, business manager and president of The Baton Rouge Building Construction Trades.
Anti-unionism is not a political party thing, he said. Many Republicans see the need for the training and stable workforce that organized labor provides, Miller said. Rather, it’s a tool for power, he said.
“We have some corporations who are greedy, and a governor who doesn’t want everybody to have a say,” Miller said.
Teacher union leader Steve Monaghan agrees.
“The framing here is that unions are in control. They’re trying to create a monster in the closet. It motivates their base,” said Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. He added that politics is cyclical and the harsh anti-union rhetoric and policies create a backlash that will send the pendulum back the other way.
Lafayette political scientist G. Pearson Cross said it is the potency of the “free market” argument that has attracted so many of the blue-collar voters, even though they are the very ones most likely to be laid off, denied credit and pay more for products when profits are down.
But the rhetoric is persuasive for many Southerners who have long believed that a centralized government inhibits individual freedom, said Cross, who chairs the Department of Political Science, University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It’s been a conflict since the founding of the nation and underlies the animosity George Washington, who favored federalism, felt toward Thomas Jefferson, who argued for a weak central government.
Rhetoric and the decline of unions are only part of the story that played a part in the seemingly abrupt sea change that turned the state from majority Democrat during qualifying for the 2007 elections to majority Republican a mere four years later, Cross said.
“These are long-term processes coming to fruition now,” Cross said. Regardless of the causes, Cross said, the facts now are “We’re going to have a Republican majority that has effective sway in this state for the next 20 years.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.