ST. VINCENT: – LIAT shareholder Prime Minister, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, on Thursday said he was disappointed with the actions taken by pilots at the regional island-hopping airline even as he hoped they return to the cockpits by Friday.
He described the pilot’s activities as “strike action” and offered a meeting with the leader of the Pilots Association on Sunday.
He said the airline was losing a half million U.S. dollars each day of the strike action.
“I appreciate the work of pilots. Over the 50 years, they have served LIAT well. They are good and decent Caribbean sons and daughters whom none of us must demonise. At the same time, we cannot have a situation in which pilots, or, at one occasion, cabin attendants, you have a grouse, you just simply close down the region. That cannot be reasonable,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves, who was scheduled to travel to a regional head of government meeting in St. Lucia on Wednesday, was among hundreds of passengers grounded as LIAT operations across the Caribbean remained crippled Thursday afternoon as pilots called in sick for the second consecutive day.
“To say that I am disappointed as to how my brothers and sisters in the Pilots Association…have acted would be an understatement,” Gonsalves told journalists in Kingstown. (Go to the homepage to subscribe to I Witness-News)
“I am hopeful that we will see a return, whether an announcement later today, or certainly for them to come out tomorrow (Friday). I am hopeful, but I can’t say to you I am sure,” he said.
He said pilots were aggrieved regarding deductions for two pilots; retroactive payment, which would also apply to management; pensions, which apply to all LIAT employees; and, an arbitration award, which was expected since last September.
“The only point on which they may end up having a case, frankly speaking, is the point about whether the retroactive payment should go from the time the Attorney General in Antigua gave a definitive ruling, or whether it should go back to when the Labour Commissioner had given an opinion,” Gonsalves said.
He said the opinion of the Labour Commissioner was at variance with a ministerial order made under the laws of Antigua and Barbuda.
“So, I don’t think you can pull the LIAT’s management apart for that. And, surely, if anything is to be done on that … you go into the air, and if there is a discussion and it is felt that in all the circumstance you do it, or you just leave it to the industrial court to settle the matter,” he said.
But Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association (LIALPA) Secretary Captain Patterson Thompson told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) on Wednesday that the association’s membership was sick and tired of getting the run-around from the airline’s management and that the time for petty talk is over.
Thompson said funds, which he claimed management unilaterally deducted from pilots’ salaries, must be repaid, although he left the door open for negotiation on the matter.
“LIAT must admit to liability from 2007 – they must pay that money from 2007 to present – cash for the public holiday pay. Prior to 2007, the union is willing to sit down and come to an agreement on that,” he told CMC.
Two-strikes in one year
It is the second time in one year that LIAT’s operations have come to a halt because of industrial action.
Last July, pilots and LIAT management declared “peace, perfect peace” and a cessation of “any guerrilla tactics” after pilots stayed away from the cockpit. (Follow I Witness-News on Facebook)
Their strike action came after the Industrial Court in Antigua granted an injunction prohibiting pilots from staging protest actions against the airline until the completion of wage negotiations.
Shareholder prime ministers Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados’ David Thompson and Gonsalves along with LIAT Chairman Dr. Jean Holder and Chief Executive Officer Brian Challenger met with the Pilots association in Kingstown and agreed to submit all the employment issues relating to LIAT pilots to a binding arbitration.
The three-member arbitration panel, chaired by retired Barbadian jurist, former High Court judge, Leroy Innis Q.C., and comprising a representative of the Pilots Association and LIAT management, was to present a final report on or before September 30, 2009. (Read story)
However that report is still pending.
“I have a judgement from the High Court for many, many years now for fellas who slander me. I can’t get the fruit of my judgement. …So what I must do, I must go on strike because the judges don’t deliver a judgement? We all have to be reasonable” Gonsalves said on Thursday.
Gonsalves further said that at the last meeting with the Pilots, it was agreed that in the event of a breakdown in negotiations between their Association and LIAT they were to contact Grenadian trade unionist, senator Chester Humphrey, or himself
“But not of this was done,” he said, adding that he told pilots on Wednesday that both parties should “not discuss the merits of each of these points”.
Gonsalves said he had invited the pilots to meet with him on Sunday ahead of a meeting on Monday of shareholder governments, LIAT management and board of directors and Humphrey.
“I believe that if you were to take a poll across the region, people would say that on this occasion, the Pilots mispitched the ball. And I think Patterson Thompson, who is the secretary, who is a former fast bowler for the West Indies will understand the point very much.
“Let’s be reasonable. We are a good-natured people. We can solve this,” Gonsalves said.