Bus mechanics union strikes at Denali National Park

Posted: Thursday, July 02, 2009

ANCHORAGE - A union representing 16 bus mechanics, radio technicians and warehouse workers at Denali National Park says the employees have gone on strike.

IBEW Local 1547 spokeswoman Melinda Taylor says employees are walking off the job Wednesday afternoon. That occurred when wage and pension negotiations broke down with the employer, Doyon/ARAMARK Joint Venture.

The strike was called as the national park prepares for the busy July Fourth weekend.

Doyon/ARAMARK spokesman Dave Freireich said the company immediately implemented a contingency plan.

"Service will continue uninterrupted for guests and that is the most important thing here," he said.

Freireich said Doyon/ARAMARK's contingency plan involves using mostly nonunion workers as temporary employees to provide bus service to park visitors.

The two sides have been working for about six months to come to agreement over wage and pension issues.

Freireich said the company had hoped to avoid a strike.

"The wages we're offering are competitive for the region and industry," he said.

Larry Bell, business manager for IBEW Local 1547 and its 4,800 active members, said the problem is that the company won't listen to any proposed wage increases.

"We would simply like the employer to negotiate in regards to wages," he said.

Doyon/ARAMARK's contract runs through Dec. 31, 2012.

Bell said the union wants to continue to negotiate.

"We are here and we're waiting and we will see what happens," he said.

While the dispute does not involve bus drivers, it does include the people who keep the buses in good running order. Buses are the main way that visitors get access to the national park, home to Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain.

Mechanics service the buses, radio dispatch technicians fix the two-way radios on the buses and warehouse workers supply the bus parts to the mechanics.

Bell said other union-covered employees at the park have their own collective bargaining agreements to adhere to and won't necessarily be drawn into the strike. The same is true for the thousands of Local 1547 members, he said.

Park spokeswoman Kris Fister said impact of the strike on the park is unclear. Denali expects to receive more than 400,000 visitors this year, many of them arriving during the busy season that goes from the third week in June to mid-August.

There is only one road into the 6-million acre national park, which is larger than the state of Massachusetts. Visitors can drive their own vehicles only 15 miles into the park. Park buses are used to transport visitors the rest of the way along the 92-mile park road, which ends at Wonder Lake.

This time of year the road is busy with shuttle buses packed with tourists, anxious to get a glimpse of park wildlife, including grizzly bears, moose and caribou.

Fister said Doyon/ARAMARK is the park's largest single concessionaire and holds the contract for bus service, and the reservation system for buses and campgrounds. This time of year Doyon/ARAMARK runs up to 30 shuttle buses daily into the park.

"That is how our visitors go further into the park," she said. "We have been assured by the concessionaire buses that go out on the road carrying visitors ... will be in the best possible condition."

Last summer, it was 122 bus drivers that voted to strike over pay issues. The drivers were able to reach an agreement with Doyon/ARAMARK.

Rick Boyles, president of Teamsters Local 959, said the bus drivers will honor their own collective bargaining agreement. That said, the local supports the right of the IBEW workers to get a fair contract, he said.

"We will do whatever we can to support IBEW legally," Boyles said.

Doyon/ARAMARK has about 970 employees working at Denali National Park, located about five hours north of Anchorage.

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