Proposal to privatize some ferry services a concern

Posted: Monday, December 01, 2003

Some of the ideas presented to Governor Murkowski's Marine Transportation Advisory Board (MTAB) last week are disturbing, especially an idea to use B.C. Ferries Inc. as a model for an improved Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS).

Tom Briggs, deputy commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, touted the B.C. Ferries model as having revitalized a system "that was in a death spiral." On closer examination the model Briggs is so keen on is not the rosy picture of success that he attempts to paint. The sale of the British Columbia ferry system to a private corporation has led to a labor dispute that verges on a full-scale strike. Customers who are dependent on the ferries to commute to their island homes are furious about changes by B.C. Ferries Inc. that were supposedly designed to increase profitability of the system.

In addition to touting a corporate model that is clearly in trouble, Briggs, in his presentation to the MTAB (an advisory board appointed last April by Governor Murkowski), suggested outsourcing AMHS reservations and marketing functions to the private sector, outsourcing food services to fast-food outlets like Burger King and turning ferry terminal operations over to local governments in the communities which they are located.

ASEA/AFSCME Local 52 and the other affected unions are concerned about the negative impact on our members' jobs and benefits, and the level of service provided to the affected communities that will result if the AMHS is privatized. Deputy Commissioner Briggs assured the MTAB that ferry workers should not be concerned that they will lose their jobs. He said he is required to notify unions that the state is looking at outsourcing work because it is legally required under union contracts. It is perplexing how Briggs can say our members' jobs are not at risk while recommending outsourcing or giving away AMHS services and facilities.

It is also perplexing how the MTAB, made up of members representing economic development councils, the Southeast Conference, commercial users of the AMHS and small towns along the Panhandle could unanimously support an idea based on a flawed model that could do away with some of the few jobs in their towns that pay a living wage, have good health benefits and could have an overall negative impact on the communities served.

The Murkowski administration is increasingly looking at outsourcing jobs to the private sector as a way to save money. While it may be good to look at improving efficiencies, it is important to consider the impact the loss of jobs with decent wages and health benefits will have. The bottom line of private industry is to make a profit. What kind of cuts would a private contractor make to become a profitable enterprise? A look at the B.C. Ferries model gives us an idea. According to a Nov. 21 Canadian Press account of the labor dispute, "corporation officials have panned the current collective agreement, calling it a 'major impediment' to a $2 billion capital replacement program that includes plans to order 22 new ships over the next 15 years." It appears that in the B.C. Ferries model capital purchases become more important than paying current employees a fair wage. The B.C. Ferries Corp. is seeking a longer workweek for the same pay and a reduction in health, overtime, vacation and pension benefits.

When considering whether or not to privatize AMHS jobs, the MTAB should consider the following:

• How will the loss of AMHS jobs affect the communities served?

• Will the privatized jobs stay in Alaska? Call centers handling reservations and ticketing could be located in the Lower 48 or even overseas.

• Can cash-strapped local communities afford the expense of running ferry terminals?

• Will private sector employees have the depth of training and experience AMHS employees have? Vessel and passenger safety are enormous considerations.

It is imperative that the Marine Transportation Advisory Board look carefully at the impact contracting out Alaska Marine Highway System jobs can have on the communities they represent.

It is also imperative that the Alaska public let the Murkowski Administration know how important good jobs with good benefits are to their communities. Economic development may bring to mind large construction projects. In reality, for many small Alaskan communities, economic development may be a handful of decent jobs.

• Jim Duncan, a former Juneau state senator and Department of Administration commissioner, is the business manager for ASEA/AFSCME Local 52.

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