NEW ORLEANS — It's a difficult, lonely life piloting the tugboats that push cargo-laden barges up and down the Mississippi and other major rivers.
It's also vital to the nation's economy.
Yet a newly organized group representing 1,000 towboat pilots say their contribution isn't recognized, and they're threatening to shut down the Mississippi and its connecting rivers this spring unless they get hefty salary raises.
"We're a forgotten breed out here," says Dickey Mathes, founder of the group, called Pilots Agree.
Mr. Mathes says the pilots have an increasing amount of responsibility due to larger loads and stiffer Coast Guard safety regulations.
And barge companies have "mostly passed the buck" down to the pilots who can lose their licenses in cases of accidents, says barge pilot George Filmore.
"I might say that we need to cut down on the number of barges for safety. They say "If you can't do it, we'll have to get someone who can,"' Mr. Filmore says.
While their job pressures are rising, pilots say their pay raises haven't matched inflation and their pensions and health insurance are being gutted. Mathes wants salaries doubled, putting the towboat pilots in the same pay category with railroad engineers.
Port officials say a walkout could cause pandemonium along the rivers. "With the bulk share of cargo that runs through here and the fleeting operations that are here, it would be the equivalent of the river shutting down," says Gary LaGrange, executive director of the Port of South Louisiana at LaPlace, one of the nation's largest handlers of barge cargo.
So far, most barge and tugboat companies have had little to say about the group, which is currently voting on whether to organize as a formal labor union. A tally is expected by February.
Trouble, though, could begin even before a walkout since customers wishing to have products shipped by barge generally enter into contracts six to 12 months in advance, says Mr. LaGrange. But so far, the threat of a walkout in late March or early April hasn't affected contracts.