Louisiana labor leader Victor Bussie, a fixture in state politics for more than half a century, died early Sunday morning, said his wife, Fran Bussie.

Bussie was president of Louisiana AFL-CIO for 41 years from 1956 to 1997. He was a confidant of several governors and responsible for many of the protections afforded workers in this state, said Louis Reine, the current president of the state’s largest labor organization.

“Mr. Bussie believed in and fought for the achievement of equal civil rights, equal rights for women, minimum wage, workplace safety requirements, free and equal education, defined benefit pension plans, and labor law initiatives for Louisiana,” Reine said Sunday morning.

Bussie died in his sleep shortly after midnight Sunday, Fran Bussie said. She was at his side.

Bussie, 92, had been suffering from anemia for the past year, she said. Physicians at Baton Rouge General Hospital discovered a malignant stomach tumor last week, she said.

Services will be held Friday in the main sanctuary at First United Methodist Church in downtown Baton Rouge on North Boulevard, Fran Bussie said. Visitation will be from 9 a.m. to noon at the church.

Bussie remained alert and well spoken during his final days, Reine said.

Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards visited Bussie late last week in the hospital.

“It would appropriate for the public to be given the opportunity to view his body in death at the State Capitol where he spent so much of his time in life working for those who had no other champion,” Edwards said Sunday morning.

Edwards recalled how much of a fixture at the State Capitol that Bussie had been during legislative sessions. He often appeared during committee hearings on key issues and frequently could be seen meeting with lawmakers on the sidelines or in Capitol hallways.

“For over 50 years he stalked legislative chambers seeking to improve the life of working men and women, the poor and disabled, and those in need of help,” Edwards said. “He never asked for himself. We all benefited by his giant presence and we are all diminished by his death.”

Once, while reflecting on his long career, Bussie said he had been blessed by opportunity and luck. “I’ve had wonderful opportunities, working at a job I really like, being involved in social, political and economic issues and helping people who have problems,” Bussie said in 1993.

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco said Sunday, “He didn’t let his politics interfere with his personal relationships. It didn’t matter whether you agreed with Victor or not, he was always a gracious gentleman with everyone. He respected everyone, across all social boundaries, and gained respect in return.”

“He knew how to take a strong position without dishonoring his opposition. His position was clear, concise and honorable,” said Sally Clausen, former commissioner of higher education in Louisiana who is a close friend of the Bussie family. “Those who fare the least in our society will miss him the most. And those of us who were fortunate to be his friend will be forever blessed.”

Neal Miller, the business manager and president of The Baton Rouge Building Construction Trades, said he was still in apprenticeship school when Bussie was in charge of the state’s largest union. But as Miller became a leader in the local labor organization, the long-retired Bussie became an invaluable resource for help and shrewd advice, he said.

Bussie remained politically astute during his retirement, able to tell the young labor leader what had worked in the past and what had not and why, Miller said.

“I talked to him at least once a week,” Miller said Sunday. “His body didn’t hold up, but his mind was all there.”

In his later years, Bussie said the AFL-CIO had lost some of its clout as a result of the exodus of labor because of Louisiana’s weak economy and the growing strength of business interests through groups like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, called LABI.

Bussie’s biggest legislative defeat was the 1976 passage of a right-to-work law that prohibited requiring workers to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.

Passage of right-to-work did not mark an end to organized labor as a political force, but it did signal a major change in the political battleground. Bolstered by its success on the right-to-work issue, the new LABI continued to push an agenda that ran counter to organized labor in most instances.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said Sunday, “He was a passionate advocate for labor, and he was respected by both his legislative allies and opponents.”

“In his heyday, there was no one more influential, except for maybe the governor,” said Bob Mann, an LSU professor who once served as an aide to Blanco and John Breaux when he was Louisiana’s U.S. senator. “I can’t think of anyone who wielded so much power for such an extended period of time.”

Bussie began his career in 1940 as a hoseman with the Shreveport Fire Department and worked his way up through the ranks to become chief of the Fire Prevention Bureau there in 1952.

Bussie always said he loved being a firefighter, but his career took him in a new direction in 1956. That’s when Bussie resigned his firefighting post after being elected president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO, during the administration of Gov. Robert Kennon. He was reelected each year thereafter.

During the 1960s, Bussie ran counter to most other lobbyists in Baton Rouge by openly supporting racial integration and later was a supporter of equal rights for women.

Bussie in 1965 was part of a three-member delegation that went to Bogalusa to try to mediate between city leaders and the black community during a period of unrest.

In 1967, Bussie’s home in the Kenilworth subdivision was bombed.

“I honestly felt, regardless of race or religion, that America guaranteed each of us that under the law we are equal,” Bussie once said.

Former Gov. John McKeithen once called Bussie “one of the strongest people I have ever known.”

Bussie served on a host of boards and commissions, including director of the Federal Reserve branch in New Orleans.

He was a longtime member of the Commission on Ethics for Public Employees. He was on the advisory board of LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, on the Governor’s Economic Development Review Committee and the Governor’s Pan American Commission.