Labor spat could tie up Fairweather

State threatens to dock fast ferry unless unions agree to contracts

Posted: Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Alaska Department of Transportation plans to take the fast ferry Fairweather out of service at the end of the month unless it can come to an agreement with three unions over worker contracts, officials announced.

On Monday the state declared that negotiations with unions over contracts for employees on the fast ferry had reached impasse, prompting it to petition the Alaska Labor Relations Agency for mediation.

Without an agreement by Jan. 25, the state will stop running the ship indefinitely.

"If the state is unable to move to the reduced schedule, it is our intention to cease operation of the Fairweather on Jan. 25, 2005," DOT Commissioner Mike Barton said in a written statement. "Tying up the vessel will result in the layoff of virtually the entire specially trained crew, a result we would sincerely hope to avoid."

The ferry's three unions - the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, the Inland Boatmens' Union, and the Masters, Mates and Pilots - already have requested mediation, according to Ben Goldrich, business manager for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association.

Goldrich and MEBA's legal counsel said the threat to cut ferry service is a strong-arm tactic meant to bully the unions.

"The governor ought to take a hard look at this bogus policy by press release and find a real labor-relations person to get a supplemental agreement that will work for the public, will work for the state and will work for the employees of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Period," said Joe Geldhof, legal counsel for MEBA. Geldhof said it was the first time the unions had heard about the proposal to tie up the ship.

The ferry unions and Alaska Department of Administration have been operating under temporary worker contracts since last year and already have gone to mediation once.

The Transportation Department said Monday it has determined it is not economical to continue operating the Fairweather under the expired contract. The state plans to reduce operations from six to four days a week during the winter, a plan that would require laying off the vessel's second 15-member crew.

John Torgerson, a contract negotiator for the state, said the Fairweather is operating at approximately a $3.5 million deficit under the temporary contracts, a gap that could be cut to about $800,000 a year.

The agreement under which the vessel has operated for eight months was written to cover "intense training and initial operations" when the vessel first arrived in Alaska waters last year, Art Chance, the state's director of labor relations, said in a letter to the Alaska Labor Relations Board.

"The ferry system will already have to go to the Legislature for supplemental funding for this year - the unions' demands would exacerbate that even more," Torgerson said in a written statement.

Torgerson said if the ferry is tied up temporarily, then travelers would have to rely on the more infrequent mainline ferry service.

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