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State seeks workers for new fast ferry

Still undetermined is which union or unions will represent employees working on the new boats

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2004

The state is hiring 20 full-time workers and a relief crew of three for the Fairweather, the first fast ferry in Alaska.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Labor Relations Agency has set hearings for January to determine what unions can represent the employees on fast ferries.

The Fairweather is expected to begin public service on May 1 and will be based in Juneau, making runs to Skagway and Haines five days a week, and between Juneau and Sitka two days a week. The 235-foot vessel will carry 250 passengers and up to 35 vehicles, and travel at speeds of up to 36 mph.

The Alaska Marine Highway System began recruiting workers for the Fairweather last week. The positions are posted on the state Web site www.state.ak.us under the heading "jobs." Look for the Workplace Alaska link.

The department hopes to fill the positions by March, when the Fairweather is expected to be delivered here from its Connecticut shipyard and training can begin. The crews will work a schedule of seven days on and seven days off.

The Fairweather will replace the Taku, a mainline ferry that has a crew of 42. Those workers won't be laid off, said Tom Briggs, deputy commissioner of Transportation and director of the Marine Highway System. Instead, they will be disseminated throughout the ferry system.

There's always a shortage of skilled workers, Briggs said. "The demand exceeds the available personnel," he said.

Still to be determined, though, is what union or unions can represent the employees on the Fairweather and the two other fast ferries for Alaska now under construction.

The state has said it wanted to bargain either with a single new union or with a consortium of the three current maritime unions. Officials have said Fairweather employees will have different job duties than those on the current ferries, and employees won't stay on the vessel overnight.

The maritime unions filed unfair-labor-practice complaints in the fall with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency, saying their contracts with the state entitle them to represent workers on ferries added to the Marine Highway System.

The unions are the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association of licensed engineers; Masters, Mates and Pilots, representing licensed deck officers; and the Inland Boatmen's Union, serving unlicensed deck employees such as stewards and seamen.

The hiring of workers and the resolution of the unions' complaints can take place simultaneously, said Art Chance, a labor relations manager with the state Department of Administration.

"We can recruit and fill, and when the (labor relations) agency makes a decision on how this unit will be constituted, we can 'plug and chug' - we know what to do," Chance said. "They'll tell us what we're supposed to do and we'll do it."

Ben Goldrich, representative for the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, said he was concerned about the state's posting of the jobs about a week before his union and the state are to have a hearing with the Labor Relations Agency.

The job notices say the positions aren't currently represented by unions and say questions about representation are pending with the Labor Relations Agency. MEBA's position is that is does represent the engineers who will work on the Fairweather.

"I think it's unfortunate that they're posted at this time, in this way," Goldrich said. "I would, of course, have preferred that we had gone through the hearing before."

• Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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