The decision 40 years ago by New Orleans Police officers to strike was historic by any means, but even more so since it came just three weeks before Mardi Gras - in February 1979.
"First of all, the police wanted more money, but they’d pretty much gotten that, but they also wanted to have compulsory binding arbitration, which means that if the city had any negotiations with the Police Department, they would have to go to a third party and agree with what the third party said," said Errol Laborde, a Carnival historian and editor of New Orleans Magazine. "That in effect meant the city was giving up control of the police department, and Dutch Morial, who was the new mayor at that time, was adamantly opposed to that."
The decision by members of the Police Association of New Orleans to strike during Carnival meant that in effect Mardi Gras was being held hostage.
"It is unfortunate that the Teamsters union decided to use the Carnival season, a great historic family activity for our citizens, as the time to cause our police officers to turn their backs on their sworn duties and deny our citizens the enjoyment of Mardi Gras," Mayor Ernest "Dutch" Morial said at a news conference at the time.
As a result of the strike, sixteen Carnival krewes decided to cancel their parades, including three of the most historic: Rex, Comus and Zulu. Thirteen others, including the superkrewe of Endymion, rolled in other parishes, including Jefferson.
"For those that canceled, the feeling was that you just can't have a parade in Orleans Parish without the police," Laborde said. "Some of the parades went to Jefferson Parish, some said we will never parade anywhere else but in Orelans Parish, so it got to be a very sensitive issue."
"But I think out of that came one of the great moments in Mardi Gras history," Laborde added. "That was the night as the parade season approached, when during a televised press conference, there was Morial and the captains of the major organizations, led by the Rex captain, who issued a statement saying 'We’re not going to parade. We will not be held hostage by the Teamsters union.'"
Once those krewes made their decision not to parade, public support for the officers who went on strike began to plummet.
On Fat Tuesday, members of the National Guard were called in to help patrol the streets. And while there were no organized parades that day, Mardi Gras did happen.
"Mardi Gras was an incredible day and people are always wrong if they say Mardi Gras was canceled. Mardi Gras is a day on the calendar and you can't cancel it," Laborde said. "What didn’t happen was the parades but people still went out to the French Quarter and they still masqueraded and they tried hard to have fun."
As The New York Times put it: “Cancel Mardi Gras? You might as well try to cancel Christmas.”
After Fat Tuesday, with the "hostage" of Carnival removed, the strike broke down and officers returned to work on March 3.