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River barge pilots walk off their jobs

By Leonard Gray / L’Observateur / April 8, 1998

NEW ORLEANS – A walkout of river pilots began Saturday after barge company representatives failed to attend a scheduled meeting on Friday with the leadership of Pilots Agree in Memphis, Tenn.

Ron Lucas of LaPlace, one member of the organization, said Dickey Mathes, president of Pilots Agree, “slammed the door at 5:01, and its echoes are being felt up and down the river.”Mathes, of Lake Valley, Ark., has claimed 1,000 barge pilots walked offtheir jobs. An industry estimate said the number is closer to 100.”It’s apt to take a few days before it hits full scale,” added Port of South Louisiana executive director Gary LaGrange.

A rally was set yesterday afternoon in Audubon Park by Pilots Agree, Lucas added, at which 100 strikers were expected to show up.

The longshoreman’s union, the International Longshoreman’s Association, is honoring the strike, according to David Esteve of the Master Mates and Pilots Union, where cargo would normally move between ships and barges.

Esteve added more than 240 tugs have stopped, that estimate in conflict with a U.S. Coast Guard estimate of 90 tugs moored. Esteve added theCoast Guard isn’t counting tugs moored at fleet operations along the river.

Lucas also admitted some pilots have returned to work “and their names are known and have been taken out of our computers.”Other pilots along the Arkansas and Mobile rivers are also honoring the strike, Lucas continued.

LaGrange acknowledged the walkout could be a major problem since shippers must make their plans in booking tows 10 to 12 months in advance.

However, LaGrange added, “It couldn’t come along at a more opportune time.” He explained with the economic downturn in Asia, not as much grainis moving anyway.

To the credit of the strikers, LaGrange continued, they have followed all Coast Guard regulations regarding proper mooring before walking out.

“Any strike causes a problem,” he said, and added he hopes for a speedy settlement.

“I understand where they’re coming from, but I think they’re going about it the wrong way,” LaGrange commented.

Presently, pilots earn from $140 to $315 per day, which Mathes said is far below the proportionate wage earned 25 years ago even though job responsibilities have increased.

In 1972, he said, the average line boat pilot earned $150 per day, or $12.50 per hour, with no overtime. The minimum wage at that time was$1.25 per hour. Today, the average salary is $227 per day, or $18.96 perhour, with 12-hour days and no overtime. Minimum wage is $5.25.To make comparable wages to 1972, the average salary should be $630 per day, or $52.50 per hour.LaGrange expressed another fear – that if the strike is prolonged the companies may bring pilots from the upper river, and they do not have the intimate knowledge of the river which could increase the possibility of accidents.

“They don’t have enough knowledge of this area,” he said.

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