River pilots consider job walk out in mid-April

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 6, 1998

By Leonard Gray / L’Observateur / April 6, 1998

NEW ORLEANS – A mass walkout of river pilots is planned, likely in mid- April.

“It’s real close,” Dickey Mathes, president of Pilots Agree, said. “It’s nota good idea for the pilots, and we don’t want to do that. But they’ve gottenus angry now.”Mathes, of Lake Valley, Ark., said the proposed walkout by more than 1,000barge pilots could stall river traffic for hundreds of miles along the Mississippi River.

The Pilots Agree president continued that barge companies have been notified by certified mail of negotiation meetings and the companies have failed to acknowledge the meetings and refused to talk to the fledgling union. Another meeting has been scheduled April 3 in Memphis, Tenn., afterwhich the union will decide what action to take.

“It’s a very coarse, cruel attitude they’ve taken,” Mathes commented of the companies.

Mathes held a rally Jan. 7 in Kenner, with the evangelical fervor of an old-fashioned tent revival.

“This is about truth and honesty and a man and his word,” he shouted to the rally. “The powers that be have mistreated us over a long period oftime.”The meeting’s purpose was to sign up barge line pilots, unit tow pilots and fleet pilots into Pilots Agree, an organization aimed to open a dialogue with barge shipping companies who employ them and improve their wages.

At a Jan. 5 meeting in Memphis, 300 pilots signed on for the organization,Mathes said. More than 200 more signed on in Kenner, and more meetingswere held upriver.

“We’re well over 1,000 strong,” Mathes said this week.

Executive Director Gary LaGrange of the Port of South Louisiana said he’s heard very little about the possible walkout but would be taking more of an interest as the planned date approaches.

He acknowledged such a walkout would be a major problem, since shippers must make their plans in booking tows 10 to 12 months in advance.

One motivation for the possible strike is money – pilots earn from $140 to $315 per day – which Mathes said is far below the proportionate wage earned 25 years ago, while job responsibilities have only increased.

Mathes pointed out in 1972 the average line boat pilot earned $150 per day, or $12.50 per hour, with no overtime. The minimum wage at that timewas $1.25 per hour.Today, the average salary is $227 per day, or $18.96 per hour with 12-hourdays and no overtime. Minimum wage is $5.25. To make comparable wagesto 1972, the average salary should be $630 per day, or $52.50 per hour.Mathes described himself as a Coast Guard-licensed marine pilot with 27 years of experience.

He first began his organizing effort with a letter to pilots on Sept. 4,1997. A Nov. 19 Memphis meeting with the International Organization ofMaster Mates and Pilots was attended by 37 pilots.

However, with a webpage on the internet and word spreading like a oil slick, the organization has gained speed and strength.

“The men are aching to do it,” Mathes said of the proposed strike.

Mathes’s webpage is located at http://www.angelfire.com/me/pilotsagree.

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