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Riverboat pilots still on strike

By Leonard Gray / L’Observateur / April 16, 1998

NEW ORLEANS – The walkout of river pilots, spearheaded by the Pilots Agree organization, continued into its second week Monday, still without any sign of scheduled talks, never mind a settlement.

The strike began April 4 after barge company representatives failed to attend an April 3 meeting with the leadership of Pilots Agree in Memphis, Tenn.

Dickey Mathes, of Lake Valley, Ark., said Monday half of the 1,400 pilotswho originally walked out are still out. Picketers have appeared at bargefleeting operations up and down the river and are being watched by local deputies. The strike, however, has spawned no violent incidents, Mathessaid.

“Our number one priority is to get the companies to talk with us,” Mathes said Monday.

However, Mathes did slam the U.S. Coast Guard for relaxing its own rule tohave two licensed pilots on every vessel. Since the walkout, only one pilotis now required.

“The U.S. Coast Guard has endangered everybody else by relaxing the ruleof two pilots per boat,” Mathes claimed.

“That is not correct,” replied Petty Officer James Dillard of the U.S. CoastGuard Public Affairs office.

“The rule states a pilot is not allowed to work more than 12 hours in a 24-hour period. Nothing has been changed.”With inexperienced or exhausted pilots working long hours to cover for strikers and with the rising river levels, Mathes claimed it’s only a matter of time before a major accident occurs.

“They’re taking an educated risk,” he said.

Port of South Louisiana Executive Director Gary LaGrange said last week the full impact of the walkout would take a few days before the effect was felt on river traffic.

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

Dillard said the number of pilots still out “have been consistently dropping every day,” possibly indicating an early, ineffectual end to the walkout.

“To my knowledge, I’m not aware of any impact,” Dillard concluded.

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, adding he hopes for a speedy end.

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