"We want them to see us," Riley says, turning his head to the parking lot behind them. "They'll peek out their windows and make sure to see that we're still here. You got people that have been friends for 30 years, that right now are not supposed to talk to each other. Which I think is pretty low."
"Some of them that know us will wave," says Richard Laughlin, who stands in front of Riley wearing a camouflage jacket and his red union hat, "but they would not be working here at the end of the day if they came out here and said hello."
Riley, who's flown transport helicopters with PHI since 1967, isn't surprised that PHI has tried to drive a wedge between the striking pilots and others who stayed on the job. "There have been problems dealing with the management of PHI as long as I've been with the company," he says. "For a long time, it involved salary, but under the current management it involved their attempts to basically bust the union. There's no other way to describe it."
This week, PHI pilots are entering the second month of their historic strike ' the first nationwide strike of an organized helicopter pilot workforce. PHI, which is headquartered in Lafayette, provides helicopter transportation to a variety of customers in the oil and gas industry, air medical industry and maintenance service companies. PHI employs approximately 600 pilots in some 16 states across the country. Estimates vary on how many pilots are now on strike, ranging from around 210 to 275. Locally, pilots estimate that of the approximately 75 pilots based in the area, about half are on strike.
Pilots began the strike on Sept. 20, following more than two years of failed negotiations between PHI management and the union over a new labor contract for the pilots. Last week, the National Mediation Board, the federal agency charged with acting as an intermediary in the labor dispute, asked both sides to respond by Tuesday, Oct. 24 to another invitation to enter back into formal negotiations and end the standoff. The union responded that it is willing and ready to negotiate, but PHI management had not responded as of press time Monday, Oct. 23.
For the union pilots, the only way to explain the reluctance of PHI management to negotiate a new contract is that CEO Al Gonsoulin, or "Big Al" as he's often referred, is bent on removing all union employees from the company.
Paul Bohelski, a representative with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, says that the National Mediation Board told him it has never seen a company so unwilling to negotiate. "This is the first time they've seen a situation where one side refuses to talk to them," he says.
PHI has been notoriously tight-lipped on its business operations in the past and is refusing to talk to the media regarding the labor dispute. In its last financial disclosure to the Securities and Exchange Commission, dated Sept. 22, PHI issued a press release stating that contrary to the union's "numerous false public statements regarding PHI's flight activity," its business has held up in spite of the labor strike. PHI said its oil and gas operations were still performing 80 percent of the normal volume of flights and that 90 percent of air medical operation flights were unaffected. The company also claimed that only 35 percent of its pilots have participated in the strike.
Union reps dispute these figures, claiming the company is minimizing the strike and that there is no way PHI's overall business has not dropped off considerably. They also say that initially, approximately 50 percent of PHI's pilots walked out on strike, but some returned to work under the threat of losing their jobs. The union says it is now holding steady with 45 percent of the company's pilots on strike.
Labor contract disputes between helicopter operators and the unions representing their pilots aren't uncommon. Before finally signing its last contract with pilots in 2004, Air Logistics, PHI's chief competitor, struggled for more than a year to reach a deal with its pilots, who also threatened a work stoppage. The company also filed suit against the union, claiming bad faith negotiations ' a legal claim PHI is also making against its pilots' union. The union pilots from Air Logistics, and other helicopter pilot unions, have rallied to support the PHI pilots' strike.
Both PHI and Air Logistics aggressively fought the formation of the pilot unions in the late 1990s. Air Logistic's union organized in 1998, while PHI's union did not form until 2001, after repeated attempts. Union organizers at PHI claimed the company managed to delay formation of the union through strong-arm tactics that coerced pilots to vote against the union. While the union ultimately succeeded in organizing, many pilots now on strike say that discrimination toward union members never ceased at PHI.
Shortly after the union formed in 2001, Al Gonsoulin, a New Iberia native who now resides in Houston, bought a controlling interest in the company and became both chairman of the board and CEO at PHI. While the company's financial footing has rebounded under Gonsoulin, pilots say working conditions have deteriorated and that Gonsoulin has taken a particularly aggressive tack in negotiating with the union.
At a union meeting held at the American Legion Hall in Lafayette last Friday, OPEIU President Michael Goodwin said Gonsoulin keeps tight control over the PHI board of directors and is personally responsible for the strike dragging on. Goodwin is also exploring the idea of organizing pickets outside Gonsoulin's Houston residence. "This is a one-man operation, and the problem is, he's the problem," Goodwin says. "We've got to figure out a way to move him. We've got to start to personalize this in some way because this is personal."
On the picket line in front of PHI, Richard Laughlin admits that many people, including those still working at PHI, have little sympathy for the union pilots. "People think we're being greedy," he says. "But this is not about money."
After the contract negotiations broke off, he says Gonsoulin instituted a new pay plan for pilots in an attempt to keep them from going on strike. Under the new payroll, Laughlin says he stood to make a $1,000 per month raise, putting him at an annual salary of about $106,000. In addition, Laughlin says PHI also raised overtime pay and has been paying out lucrative bonuses to all new and continuing pilots.
"Now, why," Laughlin asks, "haven't all the pilots gone back to work for that kind of money? Because as soon as we go back to work all those bonuses go away. But the main reason is it's not about the salary, it's about the union."
He says for many pilots, the pay plan has not been as much of an issue as general working conditions. In the new contract negotiations, pilots say PHI has fought for stricter vacation policies, tighter health regulations and a continuation of mandated overtime, which many pilots complain will mean even less hours to spend with their families.
"I'd rather take less money if I could have more time to spend with my family," Laughlin says. "This isn't about pay. It's about job security, and it's about taking our vacation and our sick leave away from us, and it's about treating your people with respect and dignity. Unfortunately, [Gonsoulin's] idea of employees is to use us as business tools. Use the tool and when it's worn out, throw it away."
It wouldn’t be a first, however, as the Chamber has thrown money behind Landrieu before.
The Democratic incumbent, seeking her fourth term in office, is a strong supporter of the Export-Import Bank, which helps finance exports of U.S. companies.
The world is a politically tense place these days with hot spots ranging from the Middle East to Ukraine. In Louisiana and Mississippi, where the political chessboard tends to be a lot less threatening and at times entertaining, this election season is living up to expectations.
American companies export smog; UN calls for cease-fire in Gaza; fist bump keeps germ transfer down and more national and international news for Monday, July 28, 2014.
Monday's Blogs from the Bog!
Louisiana has joined nine other states in support of Indiana’s appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that the Hoosier State’s ban on sam-sex marriage violates the Constitution.
The Saints are being cautious in an effort to minimize risk of re-injury.
LSU Health Sciences Center says people with a common, hard-to-treat kind of lung cancer can join a new national trial to test drugs faster.
As New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis spoke about the opening of training camp, steep, tree-covered mountains were in full view behind them.
The family of fallen cyclist Lon Lomas is speaking out after the release this week of the man charged with his death.
"The solutions are obvious: undo consolidation, or amend the charter to make this hybrid attempt at a new form of government work better."
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering whether to get involved in a lawsuit against Gov. Bobby Jindal for his attempts to undermine use of the Common Core education standards in Louisiana's public schools.
The latest meeting of a south Louisiana flood board that stirred political turmoil with a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry is taking place amid uncertainty over the future of the lawsuit — and the board's own membership.
The photos taken nearly a mile under the Gulf of Mexico are so clear that small holes are visible in a lifeboat that may have gone down or been scuttled when a passenger ship was sunk by a Nazi submarine in 1942.
Advocate columnist and Jindal shill Quin Hillyer has been against the New Orleans levee board lawsuit from day one, but a recent piece targeting author/activist John Barry prompted the perfect rebuttal from the board’s former vice-president, who takes Hillyer to task on just about every distorted claim he’s made on the issue.
Thousands of people who bought health insurance through the marketplace created by the federal health care overhaul face price hikes next year that could top 10 percent.
Louisiana fell one spot in an annual national ranking of child well-being that looks at poverty, education and health access.
A federal judge has decided he doesn't need to hear more arguments in the case of a gay couple who want a Louisiana marriage license.
Saints again bring playoff aspirations into 2014 campaign.
New details in the case against the man arrested for last week’s bomb threat and bank robbery has surfaced, including a MidSouth Bank surveillance video showing the alleged suspect attempt an early-morning bank robbery.
Parents and teachers who support the Common Core education standards sued Gov. Bobby Jindal Tuesday over his actions against the multi-state standards, accusing him of illegally meddling in education policy.
An arrest was announced this morning in connection with last week’s bomb scare at UL Lafayette.
Attorneys, judges and others interviewed by LaPolitics expect 15 to 20 district judge races this year.
"I feel like I'm under siege," an attorney said recently over drinks at Galatoire's Bistro in Baton Rouge. "We all do. Every time I turn around somebody wants a check. District attorney races. The judges. They're killing us."
As a requirement for running for Congress in the 6th District, former Gov. Edwin Edwards has filed his financial disclosure statement with the U.S. House showing his income in 2013 totaling $242,787.