River pilots face familiar complaints of nepotism and lack of diversity as legislature debates bill | Legislature
In 1988, black state Capitol lawmakers called on Louisiana’s two largest river pilot groups to diversify their all-white ranks as part of negotiations on a reform bill to strengthen group oversight.
Thirty-three years later, not much has changed.
Black lawmakers are once again raising questions about the diversity and nepotism of pilot associations as the Legislature debates a hotly contested bill pushed by oil and chemical industry groups to overhaul regulatory oversight of pilots. pilots. The bill, which is currently being negotiated, aims to bring some outside members to autonomous supervisory boards and bring transparency to which pilot groups let in, among others.
River pilots have made strides in hiring black pilots and women in their profession, which is among the most lucrative blue collar workers available in Louisiana. But records provided by the organizations show that nearly half of the pilots in the three groups on the Mississippi River are related to another pilot. Several others are linked to retired pilots or politicians. The vast majority are white males.
“It’s not a lot of progress in my mind,” Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, said in an interview. “Although this is a private industry, it is created under state law. They should be held to a certain sense of diversity and inclusion. “
River pilots and the petrochemical industry have moved closer to agreeing on controversial legislation to revise pilot regulations …
“We asked for stronger language around discrimination against pilots entering the program, wanting more African Americans to be represented and wanting more women to be represented,” said Rep. Candace. Newell, D-New Orleans, during debate. on the House floor on May 12. “Because the numbers I got, I didn’t like.”
House Bill 650 by State Representative Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, cleared the House with support from the influential Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Chemical Association. He is awaiting a hearing from the Senate Trade Committee.
Several river pilot officials acknowledged that diversifying the ranks of their associations has proven difficult and pointed to a lack of black candidates and qualified women. They also defend the practice of hiring parents, arguing that it is no different from having sons and daughters following in their parents’ footsteps in other industries.
River pilots operate as a monopoly on the Mississippi River. The state requires companies that ship goods along the waterway to pay for their services on foreign-flagged vessels. The ships they help steer are often massive and accidents can be catastrophic, making the work vital.
Pilots are quick to point out the treacherous nature of the job. Last fall, the Crescent River pilots released a cleverly produced four-and-a-half-minute dramatic video that described the “dangerous” Mississippi River as powerful enough to pull a 150,000-ton vessel from its dock. “Work is not for the faint of heart,” said the narrator.
The salary of river pilots – typically $ 500,000 or more – has drawn the ire of industries that pay for their services, while pilots argue their work is essential to safety on the river and that they deserve to be well. paid. The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Chemical Association, which are lobbying the Pressly Bill, are also fighting a demand for a salary increase from one of the pilot groups.
To become a Mississippi pilot, a person typically needs to graduate from a maritime institute and complete extensive training on piloting ships, although the exact qualifications vary by group.
Perhaps more importantly, the candidate must be elected by the current members of the group they are applying to, in which case they become an apprentice, one step below a pilot who earns a salary. Apprentices are generally paid much less than river pilots themselves; some black lawmakers have argued that the meager salary makes it difficult for those who do not come from wealthy families to become a pilot early on.
The petrochemical industry has long struggled with river pilots who help steer ships on the Mississippi River, primarily offshore …
For decades, this setup has enabled family members to earn one of the few hundred river pilot jobs in the state.
The board that oversees the pilots of the New Orleans steamship Baton Rouge, known as NOBRA, was the only one of the three boards of the Mississippi Pilot Group to refuse to release demographic information about their ranks in response to a registration request. A counsel for the council said the documentation was exempt from the public records law and refused to share the information. NOBRA president Stephen Hathorn did not respond to multiple inquiries.
Hathorn told lawmakers at a recent committee hearing that NOBRA was “working” to diversify the ranks, and claimed the group had the most black pilots of any group in the country. Jordan replied, “This is an indictment against the industry as a whole.” Several black members worked to add wording in the bill to help more black people get hired by the groups.
NOBRA employs six relatives of Francis Heitmeier, a powerful former senator and longtime lobbyist for the organization, according to a membership list provided by the group. They are among the 64 pilots who share the same last name as another pilot, which shakes up about half of the 130 pilots listed.
Kevin Alario, the son of political legend John Alario, the former Speaker of the Senate, is also a pilot of NOBRA and was recently appointed to the board that oversees NOBRA by Governor John Bel Edwards. The move, in which Francis Heitmeier’s brother Robert was ousted from the board of directors, sparked internal unrest within the organization that ended in court alongside Alario and Edwards in a lawsuit brought by former council members. Edwards also appointed Casey Clayton to the board, saying she crossed the gender barrier by becoming the first female pilot on the river in 2003.
In the ranks of the Associated Branch Pilots – known as the helm pilots because they help ships navigate the sandbank formations at the mouth of the river – 22 of the 45 pilots share a surname with a other pilot.
The organization’s president, Christian Blache, said in an email that he and his brother Greg were two of the group’s three non-white pilots. The brothers became pilots in the early 2000s and are nephews of CJ Blache, the Law Society’s longtime lobbyist for pilots.
Of the two new pilots ordered to be Bar pilots last year and the three who are slated to become pilots on June 1, Blache said all were white males.
The pilots at the Port of Crescent River, who handle ships between Pilottown and New Orleans, also have many family ties. Fifty-seven of the 119 pilots listed by the group share a last name.
Jack Anderson, chairman of the Crescent Pilot Oversight Board, said the organization has four African-American, five Asian, five Hispanic and four female pilots. He said the vast majority of pilots listed with the same last name are related, saying a son will “often follow in his father’s footsteps” to become a pilot.
“I understand their point of view,” Anderson said of the call for more diversity in the driver’s ranks. “It has been an ongoing thing. I have been a pilot for 40 years. For 30 of those years, I know this is a problem. We have tried to solve it in several ways. “
Anderson said there weren’t many blacks or women in the industry nationwide, making it difficult to recruit more non-white pilots and female pilots. Louisiana also does not have a maritime school – the closest is Texas A&M – which pilots are required to graduate. He also said the association admitted all qualified black applicants.
For a while, Crescent handed out scholarships to recruit black Texas A&M pilots, but the program only allowed Crescent to have one pilot, Anderson said.
A legislative panel on Monday put forward a much contested proposal supported by the oil and petrochemical industries to rework the surveillance of ri …
Jordan said he remembers the same racing debates that took place when he worked for the Civil Service Commission in the late 1980s when the PSC regulated pilots. He suggested the state could create a scholarship program at the University of the South or another historically black college to diversify pilot groups.
Crescent also highlighted the last three years of commissioned pilots, the vast majority of which were first generation pilots. In 2021, Crescent put six pilots into service. One was related to three other pilots and another was a nephew of State Senator Patrick Connick, R-Marrero.
Connick said his nephew entered the group completely on his own and didn’t speak to anyone from the pilot organization to help him. Connick, who is on the trade committee that will hear the bill, said he believes the regulatory structure of the pilot groups has issues that “need to be addressed.” He has also not been a close friend of the pilots in the past. In 2013, he filed an invoice on behalf of the oil and gas industry to allow industry members on the pilot pricing board to include their legal and consulting fees in pilot fees.
“I come from a family of eight and have 57 nieces and nephews,” Connick said. “In this group, you can find a few doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and a licensed pilot.”