T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History
Olin, the plant’s history, chemicals produced, unions, and the impact of plant jobs on the local economy
Lenoria Ambrose by Chelsea Arseneault, 2015.
LENORIA AMBROSE: On I-10 when you go over the I-10 bridge, right on the left hand side, that was . . . All that was Olin. And you'll probably see the production building is still there, and you might see something called Chemtura. That was all part of us. It was called Biolab at that time. And then they have . . . We also produced something called hydrazine, which was used in the space industry. It was a rocket fuel. So that was part of our production stream, too. But we had a lot of . . . lot of chemicals that we made. And of course we had the bad, bad chemical, phosgene. I don’t know If you've ever heard of that. We used that in our TDI [toluene diisocyanate] production. So we had a whole bunch of smaller plants that fueled the TDI plant. It was the first chemical plant in the area. But then of course we got Conoco and PPG and all the other plants came in after this. Cities Service . . . But Olin was the first chemical plant in the area. Like I said, in 1934.

CHELSEA ARSENEAULT: How did that happen? How did it come to . . .?

AMBROSE: You know I don't really know. I think they . . . We were in a good location. We had the water, where they could bring barges in. We had the railroad. We had the interstate. So at that time it wasn't the interstate, but they had good highways. And I think the thing that really sold them was probably the water. Because they could bring ships and barges in to bring their produce in that they needed to . . . the raw materials in that they needed. But I knew that we were an ideal place, because it was the south, the warm weather. They didn't have to worry about freezing, chemicals freezing and plants freezing, pipes freezing and we . . . our natural resources. We had natural gas, electricity was good. So we had a lot of things that they needed, that made us look good for the chemical industry.

And it thrived for many, many, many years. But then in 2006, we shut down. And like I said, we were union. The guys in the field were union. And when I first came into the plant, I was union. By the time it was shut down I'd become company . . . salaried. I belonged to the OPEIU [Office and Professional Employees International Union] which is a part of the AFL CIO. It was office and professionals union. And I was the first black to have a . . . become secretary or to become on the board. And I was able to go to a lot of the conventions that they had. Then Louisiana became a right to work state. And you couldn't get contracts. It was hard to get a contract negotiated. It was just awful.

But when I first started working at Olin I was making three dollars and something an hour. It was in 1966, and I thought I was rich. But in the area, we were making more than the school teachers. It drove our economy. And then in 1992, they put a cap on salaries. If you were coming in as a union employee you were kind of . . . There was a ceiling. You hit that ceiling and then you couldn’t move any further. You couldn't make any more money. So that was a bad thing, when they got the right to work in and started doing away with the unions.

But while it lasted, it was really good. People were able to make a good, good salary and feed our local economy. We were buying things. Buying homes. Buying cars. And nowadays I look at that and I think about that. I say if they didn't have that, I don't know what our area would be like. Because it would kind of be dead. If you didn't have the people working at the plants that was kind of driving the economy of the community. So we have so many plants now. We just have gobs of plants. Which is good. Which is a good thing.
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