Fairweather launch set back 1 week

Posted: Friday, May 21, 2004

Stringent safety training requirements and the grounding of the state ferry LeConte have delayed the Juneau launch of the state's new fast ferry Fairweather by about a week, according to the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The Fairweather is scheduled to make its first run to Haines on Monday, June 7, said ferry system manager John Falvey. The ferry originally was scheduled to begin running on May 3, but was later pushed back to the end of May because of stalled labor negotiations for the ferry's workers.

The ferry will travel between Sitka and Juneau on Wednesdays and Sundays, Juneau to Haines on Mondays, and the rest of the week between Juneau and both Haines and Skagway.

Falvey said international operation and training requirements for the Fairweather were developed by Manta Nautical Corp. out of Victoria, B.C. He said the seven-week intensive training program is required largely because of the high speed at which the vessel operates, about 32 knots.

Falvey said the launching of the Fairweather also was delayed by the grounding of the state ferry LeConte.

The LeConte ran aground on May 10 on Cozian Reef, about 30 miles north of Sitka. Eighty-six passengers and 23 crew members were evacuated from the ship.

"One of our captains and two engineers got pulled off (the Fairweather) to help with the LeConte," Falvey said. "It was a couple of days we lost."

Falvey said the Fairweather still must undergo two more safety inspections by the American Bureau of Shipping and the U.S. Coast Guard.

As the ship begins making daily runs next month, labor leaders will head back to the bargaining table to negotiate three-year contracts with the state for the vessel's employees.

The three labor unions - Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association; Masters, Mates and Pilots; and the Inland Boatmen's Union of the Pacific - signed a letter of agreement with the state in early April, establishing temporary contracts that expire June 30.

"We hope that we can get a contract before the current one expires, but we're not betting our firstborn on it," said Ben Goldrich, business agent for MEBA. "The letter of agreement was never designed to be a long-term contract. It was to get ferry workers onboard and get them trained. All three unions made concessions to make that possible."

The three unions negotiated with the state as a single bargaining unit, Goldrich said, and likely will continue to do so.

Joe Geldhof, a lawyer for MEBA, added that the unions agreed to bargain collectively because of time constraints but are under no legal obligation to negotiate as a group.

"It may not be to our convenience in the future to do so," Geldhof said.

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