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Shipping Industry Officials Fight Pay Raise For Great Lakes Freighter Pilots


This story takes us to the waterways of the Great Lakes, which are the workplace of ship pilots. They navigate foreign freighters through local waterways. And they say they should be getting paid more. Industry officials contend higher wages could push ships off the waters. From member station WCMU in Mount Pleasant, Ben Thorp reports.

BEN THORP, BYLINE: It's a 30-foot climb from a pilot boat to get onboard the Isolda, a Polish Steamship Company freighter sailing through Lake Huron on its way back from a steel delivery in Milwaukee. The boat is huge, a little shy of two football fields placed end to end.

George, how you been?

GEORGE HAYNES: Good. How are you doing?

THORP: Nice to meet you.

Once we get to the ship's control room, the pilot I'm with, Captain George Haynes, takes over.

HAYNES: All sorts of cargoes get moved on these waterways on these ships that can - up to a thousand feet long.

THORP: Pilots have to be local experts. It's expected that if every piece of equipment was to fail, a pilot could still navigate a ship through local waters. Pilots board freighters as soon as they enter the St. Lawrence Seaway. Their jobs are at the top of the maritime food chain. It takes at least 12 years to get certified and has been likened to nautical neurosurgery.

HAYNES: We need to have the best navigators on these ships. You just can't have people who are cut-rate, bottom of the barrel type.

THORP: But Haynes says they've had trouble attracting people to the Great Lakes because the pay here, while substantial, is relatively low compared to what pilots earn elsewhere.

HAYNES: On the Great Lakes, the U.S. American Pilots are - we've been the lowest paid pilots in the country.

THORP: In 2014, shipping companies complained to the Coast Guard that a shortage of pilots was forcing long waits for shippers. So the Coast Guard, which sets pilotage rates, increased those rates in March, pushing a $200,000-a-year job closer to the $320,000 mark, still less than some pilots on the coast earn.

JOHN LOFTUS: And I'm wondering - why would it be difficult to attract people to a $220,000-a-year job, let alone a $320,000-a-year job?

THORP: That's John Loftus with the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority. In May, Loftus joined with foreign shipping companies, ports and trade groups to sue the Coast Guard over the pilotage fee increase.

LOFTUS: Our concern is the, you know, 58 percent increase is just pricing our system out of the competitive world, in terms of being able to move cargo.

THORP: Loftus says if prices on the Great Lakes get too high, it may become more cost-effective to ship directly to a coastal port.

LOFTUS: It's going to be felt by the dockworkers and all the other related jobs associated with moving cargo throughout the Great Lakes.

THORP: But Haynes, who has piloted freighters for 20 years, doesn't think that shipping companies will go elsewhere because these lakes open up opportunities.

HAYNES: They have a niche market here on the Great Lakes. And we, as American Pilots, are the smallest segment of the whole system.

THORP: The Coast Guard estimates that American pilotage fees account for roughly 2 percent of a freighter's total shipping cost. For Haynes, this fight is about saying enough is enough. If they want qualified pilots to safely navigate their ships, they have to pay pilots more.

HAYNES: We have to draw a line and say, well, no. We need a good, solid, well-funded, safe pilotage system on the Great Lakes.

THORP: While both pilots and shipping officials say they care deeply about staying competitive, it appears that's about where their agreement ends. Each are doing a balancing act to try to keep Great Lakes shipping vital for decades to come. For NPR News, I'm Ben Thorp. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Thorp