The Godchaux Strike – 50 years later in Reserve

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 1, 2005


Managing Editor

RESERVE – Godchaux Sugar Refinery had a long history with St. John the Baptist Parish and especially the town of Reserve. Being the largest employer, with the company at one time on the Fortune 500 list, generations of Reserve residents worked at the facility and in its cane fields.

Henry Triche of Reserve remembered his five brothers and an uncle all worked at the refinery, and that was pretty typical. “Godchaux was good to us,” he said.

A classic model of a “company town,” everything revolved around the sugary refinery. There was a baseball field, a dance pavilion, a community club, which included a library and a swimming pool. The Fourth of July fair would draw 10,000 people every year. Every Christmas, every child of every employee received a gift.

But in 1955, after nearly a century, the cracks begin to appear and before long, it all came crashing down. Reserve has never been the same, even after the strike was settled in December that year.

For it was 50 years ago this year, on April 14, 1955, when the first of 850 employees, represented by the United Packing House Workers of America Local 1124 for the prior 13 years, went on strike for better wages. From that date, until the strike’s end, the community was literally ripped apart.

Numerous beatings, vandalism incidents and even one murder was allegedly laid at the strike’s feet. Company vice-president Walter Godchaux saw his station wagon overturned. Stories even reached LIFE magazine, after six strikers assaulted a scab worker and broke his leg. Bad feelings ran far and wide.

It even went so far as to split St. Peter Catholic Church, where the Rev.

Eyraud, chastised the workers for going on strike and urged reconciliation. District Judge L. Robert Rivarde faced a recall petition after rulings, which went against strikers.

After it was all over, and the strikers had settled for Godchaux’s counter-offer and returned to work, the gloom remained in the air. It just wasn’t the same anymore.

“My ambition was to work for Godchaux Sugar,” Dr. Gerald Keller, now president of the St. John School Board, remembered. “My dad, brothers and uncles worked there.” However, after the experience of the strike, Keller decided upon a new career path in education, leading to his present position as St. John School Board president.

Nilton Larousse remembered being a Godchaux truck driver during the strike. His wife was in the hospital at the time, and he was paid $418 a week, big money and welcome money at the time. “It was the best job I ever had,” he said.

Gloria and Henry Triche have vivid memories of the strike and its impact, both on their own lives and on the community.

“It was not a good time,” Gloria remembered. “I was expecting my second son, and we were so concerned that the health insurance wouldn’t pay off; but it did.”

For most of the strike’s duration, Henry Triche was a driver for Borden’s delivering milk to his neighbors. “We never wanted for anything, and we paid our bills.”

UPWA Local 1124 was negotiating a new contract when they demanded a 10 cents per hour raise, plus fringe benefits equivalent to an additional four and half cents. Such a demand was designed to bring Godchaux workers on a par with those at the American Sugar Refinery in Chalmette.

Godchaux countered with a 5-cents-per-hour offer and talks broke down. On April 14, the workers walked out, both at Godchaux and at Colonial Sugar in Gramercy. Company president Leon Godchaux II stated he wanted to meet their demand “but could not justify it under present business conditions.”

Tension and tempers mounted. By mid-April a rifle shot into the bedroom of a Godchaux foreman was reported. No one was injured.

In the May edition of the company publication, “The Blue Band,” Godchaux commented on the strike: “The strike at Reserve which began on Thursday, April 14th, is a shame. All of the time and energy and money being lost because of this strike is a waste. Perhaps, however, it will serve a valuable purpose in the long run: that all may know in the future that we are doing our level best to do right by our people, that we give accurate and complete information and that we mean what we say.”

On May 9, 29th Judicial District Judge L. Robert Rivarde issued a temporary restraining order, which prohibited violence and limited picketing at the refinery. By this time, 553 replacement, non-union workers were operating the facility.

A drive-by shooting of a security guard, Glen Crow, sent him to Hotel Dieu Hospital, wounded in his left thigh. He was driven there by Nilton Larousse.

Six strikers were sentenced to five months in jail for beating a replacement worker, Flagile Schexnayder, and breaking his leg. Another refinery guard, Chester Jarreau of New Roads, was shot by a shotgun pellet, which struck his nose.

By this time, UPWA was in negotiation with Cuban raw sugar suppliers, to attempt to get them to halt shipments out of respect for their labor action. Godchaux said halting shipments would be “ill-advised.”

A petition for the recall of Judge Rivarde was presented in June, begun by 30 housewives and signed by 3,000 people in St. John and St. Charles parishes. The effort failed, but the statement had been made. Also, a full-page ad in L’Observateur placed by the union noted that 95 percent of all bread-winners in Reserve were on strike and forced out of company-owned homes.

LIFE magazine even had a short piece on the strike and its impact in its July 18 issue.

Also in June, Julius Davis, a striker, was shot and killed by another striker, O.B. Stickney, during an argument regarding the petition to have Judge Rivarde recalled from office. According to Sheriff Percy Hebert, Davis shot Stickney when he refused to sign the petition and Stickney returned to his home, retrieved his own gun, and returned to shoot Davis through the heart.

However, by the time Colonial workers accepted the five-cent offer and returned to work in September, the Reserve strike had ceased to dominate the front pages of L’Observateur. Finally, the Dec. 17 edition reported the strike’s end, one day short of eight months. The workers had settled for the original Godchaux offer, but it was never the same. “It was very bitter, very bitter,” Keller said.

Before long, though, the workers amenities began to evaporate. From the company-owned houses to the Community Club, such luxuries were soon in the past. The refinery closed in January 1985 and its owners declared bankruptcy that March. Now, the refinery site is replaced by Globalplex and owned by the Port of South Louisiana.