State officials have canceled the fast ferry Fairweather's sailings beginning Sunday and say they will send the vessel to Ketchikan until they can reach a labor agreement with crew unions.
The Alaska Department of Transportation announced plans earlier this month to tie up the Fairweather in Ketchikan on Jan. 25 unless it reaches an agreement with three maritime unions. Negotiations have stalled over DOT's plan to operate the Fairweather with one crew instead of two, four days a week instead of seven through this April.
The ferry regularly serves Juneau, Sitka, Haines and Skagway.
The Inland Boatmen's Union, representing about half of the ship's crew, reached a tentative agreement with the state last week, but the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association and the Masters, Mates and Pilots union have yet to cut a deal. DOT spokesman John Manly said the 34 workers on the Fairweather either will be reassigned to another ship or laid off on Jan. 25. The Fairweather is scheduled for about three weeks of repairs in Ketchikan, starting in mid-February.
The state contends that running the ship seven days a week from October to April costs an additional $4 million a year with two crews. The high price of oil also has prompted DOT to request about $7.5 million in fast-track supplemental funds from the Alaska Legislature.
Union officials said the plan to run four days a week with one crew was sprung on them in November with no warning.
"Either their intention was to tie it up or the state's negotiators are operating without supervision and without a plan," said MEBA business agent Ben Goldrich. "The people who are going to lose out on this are the people who use the marine highway system, and they deserve better from the state."
John Torgerson, a labor negotiator for the state, said running the ferry with a reduced crew from October through April was the state's plan all along and that the unions should have read the budget.
"Let them file an unfair labor practice," he said, adding that he briefed the unions in November on the plan. "Other than that I don't have a response."
Joe Geldhof, legal counsel for MEBA, said if the state intended to operate the reduced schedule, it shouldn't have released a schedule last year saying it would run seven days a week.
Torgerson said he's hoping the unions and state can come to an agreement and crews will not have to be replaced. But some union leaders speculated that the state intended to tie up the ship from the beginning.
"I wonder if the state is trying to use the labor agreement to stop running the Fairweather," said Darryl Tseu, Alaska director the Inland Boatmen's Union. "I don't want the unions to be used as a scapegoat."
The IBU is the only union to reach an agreement, but Tseu said he worries that the state reached an agreement with one union "to make it appear as if they are bargaining in good faith with no intention of coming to an agreement with the other two unions."
He said he also worries that recently hired ferry employees without seniority will not be reassigned to another ship.
"At this point a lot of them would be without work," he said.
Tseu said if ferry workers are laid off, it could be difficult and costly to rehire ferry workers and train them. Torgerson said it cost the state about $500,000 to train the Fairweather crew last year and the state has budgeted another $500,000 to train the crew for the new fast ferry Chenega, which will serve Prince William Sound communities this summer.
Torgerson said the state is not yet negotiating on contracts for workers on the Chenega, which is expected to arrive in April. Torgerson said if an agreement is not reached on ferry contracts before then, the state might tie up the Chenega as well.
Tseu also warned that operating the ship with one crew could result in more canceled sailings because if one crew member is absent there is no backup to operate the ship. He said Coast Guard regulations require all crew members to be certified.
Torgerson said one of four night crew members could fill in but acknowledged it could be a problem.
"Clearly, if you don't have a crew, you can't operate the ship," Torgerson said.
The state and the two unions plan to resume negotiations next week.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.