PHI management begins talks with striking helicopter pilots

 - December 19, 2006, 3:56 AM

In the continuing legal saga involving hundreds of helicopter pilots employed by Lafayette, La.-based PHI, a spokesperson for the pilots’ union told AIN on December 12 that the parties have agreed to court-supervised mediation in an attempt to resolve their differences and get the pilots back to work.

On November 27, the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) filed a complaint in federal court accusing PHI of violating the Railway Labor Act by refusing to reinstate striking helicopter pilots who voted November 10 to end a two-month-long strike against PHI. The work stoppage, which at its peak involved nearly half of PHI’s pilots, was the first helicopter pilots’ strike in U.S. history. In its third-quarter financial report released November 9, PHI indicated that 237 of the company’s 565 pilots walked out on September 20.

OPEIU spokesman John Turchiano said that on December 4, a U.S. District Court judge in Louisiana authorized court-supervised mediation instead of a trial. “The judge is hopeful that the court’s supervision of the mediation will help work things out,” Turchiano said. “The fact that this mediation is occurring should tell you something.”

PHI human resources director Richard Rovinelli declined to comment to AIN on the matter.

At press time, the parties were scheduled to meet on December 14 with U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Hill in Lafayette to begin mediation proceedings. Rovinelli and PHI chairman and CEO Al Gonsoulin were expected to attend, as were OPEIU president Michael Goodwin and OPEIU Local 108 president Stephen Ragin.
Until an agreement is reached, hundreds of PHI helicopter pilots are unable to return to work. “I think they’re all just waiting as a company to see what happens on [December 14],” Turchiano said. “The union is fairly confident. The law is the law.”

OPEIU claims that PHI violated the pilots’ rights under the Railway Labor Act by failing to reinstate the pilots to their jobs with their seniority status intact. The text of the Railway Labor Act is found in Title 45, Chapter 8 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. The purpose of the act was to prevent labor strikes in the economically vital railroad and airline industries, and instead use mediation and arbitration to settle disputes. The National Mediation Board was created for this purpose. The act also seeks to protect workers’ rights to join a labor organization.

The Railway Labor Act, part of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, seeks to avoid labor strikes in the railroad and airline industries and instead use mediation and arbitration to settle disputes. While neither side of the OPEIU-PHI dispute is providing much information, OPEIU general counsel Melvin Schwarzwald told AIN that under the Railway Labor Act, PHI must allow the pilots who participated in the strike to return to work. Additionally, any pilots hired by PHI as temporary replacements during the strike must have flown revenue flights before they are eligible to become permanent replacements. “Once employees have returned to work, their full seniority counts for all future seniority-based decisions,” Schwarzwald said.