Airline Fires Union Leader, Sparks Sickout

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Pilots at LIAT, a Caribbean airline, this week took action, crippling their employer with a sickout that cancelled at least 110 flights when their union leader was fired shortly after suggesting that pilots' pensions had been mismanaged and lost by the airline. Captain Michael Blackburn had worked for LIAT for more than 35 years and chaired the Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association (LIALPA). In November, Blackburn, as head of LIALPA, sent a letter to LIAT management stating that the carrier's decision to invest pilot pension funds into a now-failed investment program went against a court order and took place without consultation of company pilots. Blackburn also made public derogatory statements about the airline. Soon thereafter, the veteran captain was accused of a safety violation. Monday, he was dismissed. His fellow pilots responded, Tuesday, with a sickout action that cancelled nearly all LIAT flights. The union has vowed that the fight is not over.

In his letter, Blackburn said that a court had ordered the pilots' pension money to be paid into a provident fund. He said that because the carrier ignored the order and the pilots pensions were subsequently lost to a bad investment, the carrier should be held liable for all contributions to date, plus interest. Blackburn then found himself under investigation, according to the Antigua Observer, for allegedly ignoring instructions from air traffic controllers and forcing another aircraft to take emergency measures. Blackburn claimed no knowledge of the alleged incident and threatened legal action. "If anybody makes any allegation against me that they can't prove, I am going to sue them. And I don't make idle threats," he said. During this timeframe, Blackburn also stated on a radio program that LIAT was less safe than it had been in years past, when it had fewer managers. Roughly one week after his comments, Blackburn was fired. LIAT published a press release on the firing, stating it took the action based on legal advice. According to LIAT, Blackburn's efforts constituted "a deliberate attempt to bring the company into public disrepute." Union leaders believe the firing was punitive and based on Blackburn's actions while working in his capacity as a union leader. They are seeking immediate reinstatement of Blackburn. A coalition of unions has sent a letter to LIAT CEO Brian Challenger, stating that they will take any action necessary to achieve this objective.