UNION HEAD: PILOTS OF TOWBOATS MAY STRIKE IN APRIL \ PAY, SAFETY IN QUESTION ON INLAND WATERWAYS

UNION HEAD: PILOTS OF TOWBOATS MAY STRIKE IN APRIL \ PAY, SAFETY IN QUESTION ON INLAND WATERWAYS

A strike tying up crucial transport on the Mississippi and other inland arteries is possible as soon as early April, according to the head of a union representing towboat pilots.

The showdown looms closer as the union, Pilots Agree, plans to send a letter this week to towboat owners demanding recognition and negotiations over pay and safety issues. Owners may get the letters late this week.''It'll take three or four days for them (the owners) to get the letters,'' said Dickey Mathes, the union's president. ''Then we'll give them 10 days.

''If a company won't talk to us, they'll take their own chances. Those that negotiate in good faith, we won't walk off on them,'' he said.

Pilots Agree will set a time and place to meet with companies that agree to negotiate.

''If they reach an agreement, we'll never stop work on them,'' Mr. Mathes said. ''But if we do walk off on a company that won't reach an agreement, we won't sign an agreement until all the pilots go back'' to that company.

NO CONDITIONS SET

Pilots Agree is not setting any conditions for negotiations.

''We really prefer to work this out,'' Mr. Mathes said.

There is hope for a settlement, he said, despite public declarations by companies that they will not negotiate. Mr. Mathes said five companies have contacted him, including four of the larger firms, and all have said privately that they will talk with the union.

Pilots Agree says about 1,200 of 3,000 towboat pilots belong to the union. In February, the group formally affiliated with the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, which is pledging its support in the bid for a contract.

The union says a strike could shut down crucial transport on the Mississippi and other major inland waterways.

''Power plants depend on coal from barges,'' Mr. Mathes said. ''Chemical plants will shut down without supplies from barges. Ships in New Orleans will be idle because there won't be any way to transport their cargo.''

U.S. grain exports also would be crippled by a shutdown. More than 45 million tons of grain were transported on the Mississippi last year. And even if an agreement is reached, companies say U.S. grain will lose competitiveness if higher operating costs add just a few cents per ton to transportation costs.

WANT TO DOUBLE PAY

Although Pilots Agree has set no prior conditions for talks, Mr. Mathes has said pilots want to double their pay from an average of about $175 a day. Pilots' pay has fallen behind cost-of-living increases and behind pay for comparable jobs in other lines of transportation, he said, and companies have plenty of profit to divert to pay raises.

Pilots Agree also wants to change work conditions that it says contribute to a high fatality rate.

There were 88 fatalities per 100,000 employees annually among towboat crews from 1985-1994, a Coast Guard study said. That is about nine times the overall rate for the U.S. workplace, according to a National Safety Council report.

Pilots currently work 30 days on and 15 off. This helps cause fatigue and leads to severe family problems because the pilot is away from home so much, Mr. Mathes said. The union wants to change that to 30 days on and 30 off.

The change also would put more pressure on companies to settle, he said.

''It will take four pilots for each boat, not three like now,'' he said. ''We'll take guys who have been laid off to work for companies that have not reached an agreement. There's a shortage of pilots already, and if a company waits too long (to reach an agreement), there won't be any available pilots at all.''

Towboat operators insist there is no room for major pay increases in an industry where competition is fierce among companies, with rail and other forms of transport and with exports from other countries.

COMPANY 'LOSING GROUND'

''My company is losing ground,'' said David Stokes. He owns Stokes Towing, a Greenville, Miss., company that employed Mr. Mathes until he was fired in January. ''Just a few days ago, we had to sell one of our towboats. I have absolutely nothing left to give in (additional) wages or anything like that.''

Owners say they are addressing safety issues through the Responsible Carrier Program launched in 1994, with the cooperation of insurers and the Coast Guard. Fatalities for all tugboats, including those on the coast, fell from 26 in 1992 to 13 in 1996, according to Coast Guard statistics.

Owners also doubt that Pilots Agree has as much support as it claims. Houston-based Coastal Towing Inc. recently held a ''very open discussion'' with a group of its pilots, according to John Roberts, general manager of administration.

''From what we heard, we don't have a problem,'' he said.