"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."
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
Women sue over sperm mix-up; Romney on campaign trail; Ebola patient was released from hospital and more national and international news for Thursday, October 02, 2014.
State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, surprised few in the Hub City Wednesday afternoon when he made (semi) official what most of us have known for months: He is running to replace Joey Durel as city-parish president.
Louisiana's first black Republican state senator since Reconstruction — who was a Republican before he was a Democrat before he was a Republican again — is accusing Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of using the black community for votes and providing nothing in return.
LSU's governing board has backed new hospital privatization contracts that give hospital managers greater ease to leave the deal and fewer restrictions about must-have services.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is courting young voters in several appearances across Louisiana this week, talking about her support for legislation that could lower students' college costs.
Stage 4 vet takes on cancer and reminds us all what it really means to get involved.
Is Mary fading as Vitter solidifies his lock on the fourth floor?
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration has renegotiated contracts for six LSU hospital privatization deals, hoping to reach a compromise with federal health officials that will keep Medicaid dollars flowing to the privatized patient services.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is defending her record on gun rights, seeking to rebut sharp criticism from the NRA in a state where the right to bear arms is given special constitutional protection.
Citizens, you have less than a week to register to vote in the Nov. 4 election. Remember, if you don’t vote you can’t complain about the outcome. Well, you can but it’s kind of hypocritical.
After being forced out by its former landlords last year, the community garden has a new location and a 10-year lease.
The party says it has hit a milestone, reaching 10,000 registered voters in the state.
Defensive captain Junior Galette is disgusted by the Saints' sluggish start.
The use of $60 million in Louisiana's public school financing formula to pay for nearly three dozen charter schools violates the state constitution, a statewide teachers' union claimed Monday in a lawsuit.
February trial date indicates parties were unable to negotiate a settlement.
There was a time when United Ballot had a political stranglehold so tight on Lafayette’s black community it was nearly unbreakable, but that grip might be loosening.
The race for Lafayette city marshal may not be the most exciting of this year’s local political contests, but it could prove the most historic.
With the DA’s race too close to call and negative media coverage of Mike Harson on the ebb, will challenger Keith Stutes take the gloves off?
Gov. Bobby Jindal has been viewed as a health care policy wonk, and he's tried to build on that image ahead of a likely 2016 presidential campaign, positioning himself as the candidate with substantive ideas.
Jerry Jones watched what he called the best effort he's seen in 25 years as owner of the Dallas Cowboys in the first half, and that was before Tony Romo had the longest scramble of his career and DeMarco Murray finished off yet another 100-yard game.
Two of the most recognizable women in Republican politics, Sarah Palin and Mary Matalin, have been heavily involved in Louisiana’s current election cycle.
Even though the Louisiana Democratic Party has thrown its support behind former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ congressional bid, national Democrats are not expected to follow suit.
“[Mike] is no longer the energetic ADA that his recent ad is trying to portray. I just think Mike needs to get the hell out.” — Kermit Harson, DA Mike Harson’s brother
The New Orleans Saints have listed Jonathan Goodwin as questionable for Sunday night's game in Dallas, raising the prospect that second-year pro Tim Lelito will start at center for the first time.