Arbitrator rules ferry system violated union contracts

State officials: Finding may cause halt in service for Angoon, Pelican

Posted: Wednesday, August 04, 2004

An arbitrator's ruling ordering the Alaska Marine Highway System to settle with two labor unions for using non-union labor to serve remote communities, after the ferry LeConte was damaged in May, could result in no ferry service for Angoon and Pelican, state transportation officials said Tuesday in a news release.

However, Mike Barton, commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said he was unsure what specific damage the ruling will have.

"We are considering what options we have and will make a decision within the time frame the arbitrator has laid out," he said.

Arbitrator Gordon M. Byrholdt of Anacortes, Wash., gave the parties 45 days from his July 27 ruling to work out back-pay issues. He upheld grievances filed by the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association and the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, writing that the state violated the unions' contracts.

The news release from Barton's office adds that the settlement will seek to continue to provide emergency service to Angoon and Pelican.

Joseph Geldhof, counsel for MEBA, said the money the state owes won't be a huge amount. He said that he believes MEBA could be owed between $25,000 and $75,000. It won't be much different than it would have been if the state had followed the contract in the first place, he said.

Geldhof noted that the replacement vessels are smaller and don't run around the clock.

Byrholdt ruled the state violated its contracts with the unions when it hired Alaska Catamarans to provide service to Tenakee Springs, Angoon and Pelican after the ferry LeConte ran aground on Cozian Reef on May 10 during a run between Angoon and Sitka.

The Taku has been serving Tenakee Springs for more than a month, but Alaska Catamarans continues to serve Angoon and Pelican.

"Our primary concern continues to be to provide a reasonable level of service to those ports while the LeConte is being repaired," Barton said.

Geldhof said that by the terms of the contract, the state was obligated either to hire union workers to operate the replacement vessels or require the replacement contractor to hire union people.

Byrholdt noted in his ruling that the state insisted time was of the essence in contracting for replacement vessels to fulfill the LeConte's service to remote communities and that no unstaffed boat charters were available.

Still, "Alaska Catamarans' vessels serving as replacement vessels for the LeConte are subject to the terms and conditions (of the unions' collective bargaining agreements)," he wrote. In failing to recognize the unions as representatives of the deck officers and engineers, the state violated the contract, he concluded.

Both sides noted Tuesday that new collective bargaining agreements with unions working for the marine highway system would allow remote villages, such as those being served by Alaska Catamarans, to be privately contracted. The agreement is awaiting ratification by union members.

"The arbitrator's decision underscores the need for flexibility in marine highway management," Barton said.

Geldhof said state officials are missing the point.

"The arbitrator's decision underscores the need for Alaska Marine Highway management to follow their contracts," he said.

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