Fairweather settlement is near

Agreement is a first for a U.S. labor contract involving a fast ferry

Posted: Wednesday, March 09, 2005

State and union negotiators agreed to a labor contract for Fairweather employees shortly before midnight Monday and the fast ferry will resume operations in Lynn Canal by March 24, state officials said Tuesday.

The state plucked the ferry from its Juneau-based service in northern Southeast Alaska on Jan. 23, citing a breakdown in labor negotiations. Unions criticized the decision, saying they were close to a deal.

The contract talks that began in 2004 finally ended at 11 p.m. Monday with key agreements on both sides, state and union negotiators said. The ferry, dry-docked in Ketchikan, may come back into service as early as March 18, said John Torgerson, special assistant to Transportation Commissioner Mike Barten.

The two unions involved told The Associated Press that Fairweather crew members will get a salary premium about 5 percent above the master contract that covers all state ferry crews.

The negotiations set a milestone because they resulted in the first ever U.S. labor contract for a fast ferry, said Ben Goldrich, Alaska representative for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association.

"Our crew is thrilled to have this over and done with," Goldrich said, adding that the labor contract still must be ratified by union rank and file. The realistic time frame for the vote is within 30 days, he said.

The Legislature also must approve the deal as part of a master contract for all ferry workers.

The wages included in the three-year contract will be confidential until the union membership reviews them.

The state's decision to remove the Fairweather from Juneau vastly reduced ferry service between northern Panhandle communities, leading to the cancellation of some school athletic events.

Torgerson said the state had a deadline to complete the negotiations before May 1, the beginning of the summer ferry season.

A major sticking point in the contract talks was the state's decision to reduce winter service from seven days a week, with two crews, to four days a week, with one crew.

The unions agreed in general to a reduced crew but argued that the state's plan didn't provide enough crew members to keep up with the vessel's maintenance when it is not running, Goldrich said.

The negotiations fell into place when the state set a calendar for ferry operations and agreed to keep one crew member on the Fairweather in transitional periods when it is not running, he said.

The vessel is taken off duty twice per year for maintenance.

"We've come up with a timeline so that when the vessel goes into the yards, we'll hire or release crew during that period of time," Torgerson said.

"This is one thing that was important to us. It's one that the state agreed to," Goldrich said.

The Inland Boatman's Union of the Pacific had reached a prior agreement with the state on its labor contract.

The state's final negotiations that concluded Monday night were with the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association and the Masters, Mates and Pilots.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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