Rabalais: That Year There Was No Mardi Gras

When the good times (and parades) didn’t roll for Dutch

Throughout history, only cataclysmic events such as invading Yankees, Yellow Fever, and World Wars have able to call off the annual revelry of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

But in 1979, a political firestorm canceled the Crescent City’s celebration of Fat Tuesday.

Less than one year in office, Mayor Dutch Morial was facing daunting fiscal problems.

Struggling to make the massive municipal payroll, Morial and the City Council decided to reform the salary structure for city workers. Their plan called for a 5-percent pay raise, but with a reduction in benefits and an increase in the number of hours in the workweek.

Seeing Morial’s plan as unfair, city employees were outraged and began talking of a work stoppage.

Union organizers for the police department planned their action for the Carnival season, knowing that the pressing need for extra officers with the influx of tourists and crowds would give them leverage in negotiations.

However, the talks reached an impasse when the city refused to reinstate benefits.

On Feb. 8, with two weeks to Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Police Department went on strike. Morial initially threatened to fire any officer who did now report to work, while Gov. Edwin Edwards called out the National Guard and State Police to patrol the city.

With their backs against the wall, Morial and the City Council tentatively agreed to some of the demands and the officers returned to work. Teamsters Union officials flew down to assist the police with the negotiations, but the talks got bogged down again.

On Feb. 16, the NOPD went on strike for the second time. Gov. Edwards recalled the State Police and National Guard to the city, but warned officials that they were ill-equipped to handle the crowds and parades of Mardi Gras. In response, Morial cancelled the first week of festivities.

Supporting Morial, the remaining Krewes announced that they would be suspending activities or relocating to suburban Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard Parishes.

Locals were outraged, but the majority blamed the police and the Teamsters Union.

The streets of New Orleans were empty on Mardi Gras Day 1979.

The strike ended days later, with the police winning only nominal concessions from the city.

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