This story has been updated. Read the latest developments here.
JUNEAU – The Alaska Marine Highway System halted all navigation on Wednesday after its largest union decided to go on strike following failed contract negotiations with the state.
Members of the Union of Pacific Boatmen left the Columbia ferry, docked in Ketchikan, shortly after 2 p.m., and other ferry workers followed suit when their ships reached port.
“The state does not want a work stoppage and we do not believe that a strike is necessary,” said Kelly Tshibaka, commissioner of the administration department. She said the state considered the strike illegal and could suspend or fire the strikers.
Stranded passengers are being refunded their tickets, said John MacKinnon, Alaska Department of Transportation commissioner, and the state is trying to find alternative transportation for those who were partly on their route when the strike began. . MacKinnon said the stranded vehicles will be transferred to private shippers, such as Alaska Marine Lines. The state is reaching out to passengers to make sure they are taken care of, MacKinnon said.
âWe don’t want to block them like the IBU,â he said.
MacKinnon’s special assistant Meadow Bailey wrote by email that “the state does not pay for airline tickets, but passengers can use the ticket refund to pay for any additional travel.”
State ferries will be docked until the strike is resolved. The Marine Engineers‘ Beneficial Association and the Masters, Mates and Pilots Union also represent workers on the Alaska ferry system. Neither group is involved in the current conflict but will not cross the picket lines unless the IBU allows them to, representatives said by phone.
In the State Capitol, observers worried about the effects of losing a vital transportation link during the height of the summer tourist season. State ferries also deliver chilled fish from processing plants to the market and perishables from Lower 48 to communities outside of Alaska’s limited highway system.
âI hope they don’t (strike) because it will cripple the economy of many communities. Juneau, Anchorage, the full nine yards, âRepresentative Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak said Wednesday morning before the strike began.
In a Wednesday morning meeting with media, union officials said they did not want to strike, but after years of unsuccessful negotiations felt they had no options left.
âWe have tried and tried to work with the state, but we are just banging our heads against the wall,â said Robb Arnold, ferry system flight attendant and vice chairman of the board of directors of the ‘IBU.
âWe don’t want a strike. This is our last resort, âhe said.
The union said in a statement on Tuesday night that it was also concerned about significant budget cuts to the state’s ferry system.
The IBU, which represents around 430 ferry system workers, has been working under a series of interim agreements since 2017, when its last three-year contract expired. Negotiations under former Gov. Bill Walker did not result in a long-term agreement, and mediation under Walker and now Gov. Mike Dunleavy also failed to reach a deal.
The IBU said in its statement that it had rejected a “tough package proposed by Governor Dunleavy’s administration.”
Marina Secchitano, president of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, is normally based in San Francisco but was in Juneau on Wednesday. She said over the past few months the administration has pulled out of 31 tentative deals on various parts of a new contract.
None of these agreements involved the âeconomic packageâ of the contract – salary and benefits. The union and the state have remained separate on these issues, despite the efforts of a mediator.
The union is looking for a three-year contract with a 3% increase each year, Secchitano said. In addition, the union calls on the state to cover any increases in health insurance costs and to eliminate rules that pay out-of-state workers less than state workers.
Secchitano said the rules encouraged the state to hire outside workers.
“When there is an advantage in not hiring Alaskans because they can pay less, there is a problem,” she said.
They also said that as an alternative, they would be prepared to see ferry workers paid on the same merit and step system as other state employees. This system provides for automatic salary increases for experienced government employees.
âI think what we are asking is very fair. They gave more to some unions and less to others “than what the IBU is asking for,” Secchitano said.
Tshibaka said during a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon that the union’s statement was not accurate. She described the multiple offers made by the state of Alaska to the union. One of those deals, a three-year deal proposed under the Walker administration last fall, would have included a 5% increase in the first year and 2% in subsequent years. The union declined this offer.
Tshibaka said that when a federal mediator was called in to settle the matter at the start of the summer, “their opening negotiations were 12% over three years.”
âThey were moving further and further away from us,â she said.
She said it would be a “dereliction of duty” on her part to give the IBU something in the short term that “endangers the state in the long run.”
âThe IBU wanted a lot more than the other two maritime unions,â MacKinnon said.
âI cannot give disproportionate benefits and rewards to the IBU,â Tshibaka said.
In a letter sent to the union on July 23, the Administration Ministry said it believed that if a strike took place, it would not be protected by the state’s collective bargaining law.
“If the strike is not protected,” Tshibaka wrote, “as you probably also know, every striking employee (or one, or some, or all) would be subject to summary dismissal from their employment with the state. “.
She confirmed this interpretation over the phone, but said the state did not want to make the problem worse through its labor dispute resolution system or through the court.
Secchitano said the union was acting legally and could challenge the state in court if it tried to claim illegal action.
The strike was the first for members of the IBU ferry network since 1977. The strike lasted 20 days.