Three Alaska maritime labor unions have filed complaints with the state over the Department of Administration's refusal to negotiate with them individually on employee contracts for the new fast ferry Fairweather.
The Fairweather is expected to arrive in Alaska waters in February and begin making daily runs between Juneau, Sitka, Haines and Skagway in May 2004.
In late September and early October, the unions filed unfair labor practice complaints with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency, a state board that resolves labor disputes.
Art Chance, a labor negotiator with the state Department of Administration, said the new ferry will require fewer workers with different job duties than those of mainline ferries. He said the Fairweather will operate more like an airliner, noting employees will not work overnight shifts and the vessel will not need stewards to take care of the crew.
"We believe that the qualifications and working conditions of fast-vehicle ferry employees are so different from those of the traditional (mainline) vessels that the employees of the fast-vehicle ferry should be in a separate bargaining unit," Chance said.
The single bargaining unit would have one representative negotiating contracts for stewards and pursers as well as pilots and engineers.
Under this plan, fast ferry workers likely would sign contracts different from those who work on mainline ferries.
Representatives from the three unions - the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association; Masters, Mates and Pilots; and the Inland Boatmen's Union - argue that existing union contracts require the state to bargain with each group separately. The bargaining unit for Masters, Mates and Pilots represents licensed deck officers, Marine Engineers' Beneficial represents licensed engineers and Inland Boatmen's Union represents unlicensed deck employees such as seamen, pursers and stewards.
Marine Engineers' Business Agent Ben Goldrich said he wants the state to incorporate fast ferry employees' contracts into the contracts agreed on by mainline ferry employees.
"I don't know exactly what the state is thinking on this," he said. "We have in our contract that when the state brings on new vessels they need to bargain with us on staffing of the vessels. I think it is unrealistic to expect that one bargaining unit can speak for all three."
Daryl Tseu, Alaska director for the Inland Boatmen's Union, said its contract with the state says the organization represents all unlicensed crew members and establishing a different bargaining unit for all fast ferry employees would constitute a break in that contract.
"They are trying to section off the high-speed ferries," he said, noting that it could be a step toward breaking up the union.
Chance noted the fast ferry would employee about 13 people and individual negotiations for just a few employees would be unnecessary.
"Our law prohibits unnecessary fragmentation and we believe that this is unnecessary fragmentation," he said, calling the unions' complaints "high drama."
Jean Ward, a hearing officer for Alaska Labor Relations Agency, said the issue will be brought before a three-member panel that will make a final determination.
The losing party has 30 days to appeal the decision to a state superior court.
A pre-hearing conference with the Labor Relations Agency on the MEBA case is scheduled for Nov. 25.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.