Ferry workers' union initiates strike after submitting altered contract to state
UPDATE: The union representing more than 400 Alaska Ferry workers initiated a strike at 2 p.m. Wednesday after another contract negotiation meeting with the state failed to reach an agreement.
Robb Arnold with the Alaska Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific said the union entered a meeting with the state at 1 p.m. Wednesday with a contract proposal with wording changes that the union believed the state would agree to. Arnold says the people representing the state left the room and did not return with a decision before the deadline the union gave them.
"We're willing to make concessions and want to make a deal," Arnold said. "But now they've pushed us so far into the corner that we have to do what we have to do."
Arnold said the strike is indefinite and is a rolling strike, meaning that union members on vessels currently at sea will return to port before striking.
Kelly Tshibaka, Commissioner of the Department of Administration, said Wednesday that the department believes the strike is illegal and that union members who do not show up to work could be fired. She said that the IBU could also be required to pay back lost revenues and other costs associated with the strike.
Union leaders say their counsel assured them their strike is legal and that the threat of firing workers is a scare tactic.
"We have worked really, really hard on multiple proposals that they put forth, and if there's any way that we can give, we've given," Tshibaka said. "So what I've seen time and again is them coming back and asking for things that, like I said are violations of state law, and we can't give on that."
Alaska's Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific says that a system-wide strike could come as soon as tomorrow over a dispute of contract terms proposed by the governor's Office of Administration.
The union says that 86% of its workers voted against the Dunleavy administration's proposed terms after 38 meetings between the two parties.
The union, which represents about 430 workers across the ferry system, released a media advisory on Tuesday evening with the following complaints about the governor's proposal:
-The contract cancels 28 negotiated settlements reached during the previous three years of bargaining
-One year contracts are used instead of "more efficient" three year contracts
-The contract uses mandatory overtime instead of hiring more workers
They say that they've gone five years without pay increases, and, according to the Department of Administration, proposed a nine percent increase in pay over three years, which the department rejected after offering five percent.
The union also complained about the budget cuts of $46 million imposed by the legislature, which they say threatens many of the communities who rely on the ferry, denies the same employment opportunities provided to other state workers, encourages privatization of the ferry system, and cancels cleaner, safer vessel construction.
Robb Arnold, a spokesperson for the union, says that he believes that the union's counter-proposal was reasonable.
"I think we've bent over backwards," he said in a phone interview with Channel 2.
The union has not set a final time for a decision of whether or not to strike, hoping to keep the possibility of reaching a deal open.
But he also says that he doesn't see a deal going through without a restoration of funding, something that the legislature has already decided against.
"We're seeking 100% restoration of funding," he said, adding that his union feels that this is the only way to provide the needed service to communities that are threatened with winter reductions.
The Inlandboatmen's Union is just one of three representing ferry workers in the state. The other two, Masters, Mates and Pilots (MMP) and Marine Engineer Beneficial Association (MEBA), which are both affiliated with AFL-CIO have both already negotiated one-year extensions in their contract.
AFL-CIO president Vince Beltrami says he is strongly opposed to the strike.
"If it ties up the ferries, we fear that Governor Dunleavy will use it as an opportunity to blame the shutdown on the unions, when it has been the policies of the governor that have gotten us into this place," he said.
Still, he said that if the Inlandboatmen's Union decides to strike, that will effectively shut down the ferry system, regardless of union affiliation.
"It makes it impossible with the employees that they have on each ship to run the ferry system," he said.
A Department of Administration press release late Tuesday evening blamed the union for rejecting "numerous fair and fiscally responsible contract offers from the State."
The administration says that the union demanded nine percent pay increase over the next three years, and rejected a five percent increase over the same period. It also says that the union refused to accept a cost-of-living differential, which would pay out-of-state workers less than in-state workers and that the union demanded healthcare with no contributions from employees.
John MacKinnon, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities emphasized the economic importance of keeping the ferries running.
"This is the busiest time of year for the Alaska Marine Highway System," he said in the Department of Administration press release, "and a shutdown of the ferry system will impact residents, visitors, and commerce. At this time, we will focus on the safety of the passengers, crew, and vessels."