State and union negotiators met twice last week in an effort to reach a labor agreement for the fast ferry Fairweather, but no resolution had been reached by Saturday.
Representatives of the two crew unions involved - the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association and the Masters, Mates and Pilots union - said Saturday afternoon they were close to submitting new proposals.
MEBA Alaska representative Ben Goldrich said Friday the new proposal contained "significant concessions," but would not elaborate.
"The state has certain needs," said MMP Alaska representative Ron Leighton III. "We're trying to meet those needs and still protect our employees in the process."
The state removed the Fairweather from service Jan. 23 after negotiations stalled in revising crew contracts to allow for reduced winter service. The vessel had been operating seven days a week with two crews; the state wants to reduce winter operation to four days a week with one crew.
One of the ferry's three crew unions - the Inland Boatmen's Union - reached a tentative agreement with the state earlier this month.
State Department of Transportation chief communications officer John Manly said the two-crew system works well in summer, but is financially unsound with lower passenger volume in the winter.
"It's regretful that we're not able to maintain the schedule we had planned," Manly said. "But until we get an agreement with the ferry unions, we can't keep bleeding money the way we have."
The state has said running a full schedule and crew from October to April costs an additional $4 million - money that would have to come at the expense of other operations if full operations continue, Manly said.
According to Manly, the Fairweather was taken out of service and sent to Ketchikan to ensure it would reach the shipyard there - under direction of its crew - for scheduled maintenance at the end of February.
Union officials maintain the state's action was unwarranted, and that the vessel could have kept running during negotiations.
"If they wanted us to run the Fairweather two days a week or three days a week, they could do that," MEBA legal counsel Joe Geldhof said. "And if we didn't like that, we could (file a grievance). What they've decided to do is lock up the Fairweather."
"We're all extremely disappointed that the state saw fit to pull the Fairweather out of service earlier than its scheduled maintenance," Goldrich said. "It has done nothing to reinforce people's confidence in the system."
John Torgerson, a labor negotiator for the state and a special assistant to transportation commissioner Mike Barton, said Friday the next step will depend on the unions' next proposal. Until then, he considers the situation at an impasse.
"We want to get this over with and get the Fairweather back in service," Torgerson said.
The Fairweather, the state's first fast ferry, started operation last June between Juneau, Skagway, Haines and Sitka.
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