Unions get settlements after ferry grounding

Posted: Monday, March 17, 2008

The ferry system's response after the 2004 grounding of the ferry LeConte has cost the state an additional $480,000 in payments to ferry unions, stemming from grievances they filed after a private company was hired to provide replacement ferries.

A final payment is now under consideration in the Alaska Legislature.

The grounding of the LeConte on a reef in Peril Strait cost the Alaska Marine Highway System $7.7 million in damages and disrupted service to the vessel's regular ports of call, including Sitka, Angoon, Hoonah and others.

The biggest beneficiary of the payments resulting from the grievances was the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, which received the bulk of the arbitration award. Members of that union were found negligent in running the ferry aground in broad daylight on a well-marked reef. All 83 passengers were safely evacuated to nearby fishing boats and other vessels.

State Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks, questioned the payments.

"I hope those who were responsible at least lost their jobs," he said.

Both the vessel's master and chief mate were fired, according to Roger Wetherell, spokesman for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which runs the ferry system.

In clear weather, they changed course, neglected to check where they were, failed to see a navigation aid marking Peril Strait's Cozian Reef, and ran aground at full speed, he said.

The two were first suspended without pay, and then fired after the U.S. Coast Guard inquiry determined they were negligent.

Capt. C. Michael Murray, the Seattle-based vice president of the International Association of Masters, Mates and Pilots declined several opportunities to comment.

Two other unions, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association and the Inland Boatmen's Union of the Pacific, got smaller settlements. Nearly four years later, a budget bill that includes a final $142,000 for the IBU is working its way through the Legislature.

State officials said the award came when the ferry system hired private boat operators to provide replacement service to several small communities dependent on the LeConte. Various union contracts, however, required the ferry system to provide the unions with 30-day's notice before contracting out. That was not done, acknowledged Nicki Neal, director of the state's Labor Relations Agency.

The contract language was presumably written to prevent contracting out ferry service as a cost-saving measure without giving the ferry unions an opportunity to offer their own ideas, she said.

Neal said after an earlier incident in which the LeConte's steering failed, the unions had waived similar provisions, so private vessels could be hired to provide service, but in this case the unions filed a grievance. An arbitrator ruled in favor of the unions, saying the contract clearly stated that the ferry system should give the unions notice 30 days in advance.

"We didn't like it, I can tell you that," said Nancy Sutch, a labor relations analyst with the state Division of Personnel.

Ben Goldrich, director of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, said the focus should not be on the grounding, but on the state's decisions after that.

"The reality is the state chose to contract out in direct violation of our contract. That's where the payments came from," he said.

The grounding, he said, "was a horrific event, but thanks to the professionalism of our crews, tragedy was averted."

MEBA received the smallest amount, less than $20,000.

The International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots did not return phone calls asking what it would do with its settlement.

Darryl Tseu, regional director of the Inland Boatmen's Union, said it planned to use the money to organize coastal communities to advocate for better ferry service.

"It's not to enrich anybody, but if we can we'd like to get more public input into the process," he said. "We were really disappointed with how the schedule came out this year."

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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