Ferry workers on strike after deadlock in contract negotiations with the state
Hundreds of ferry workers are on strike after their contract negotiations with the state stay at a standstill. The Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific (IBU) and the state have been negotiating a ferry workers contract since 2016 but the union hasn’t accepted the state’s terms.
The IBU gave the state until Wednesday at 2 p.m. to meet the union’s demands but according to IBU president Marina Secchitano, time ran out and the state hasn’t responded.
In a statement on Tuesday, Department of Administration commissioner Kelly Tshibaka said DOA has met with IBU 38 times in the last two and a half years.
“It is our goal to agree to a contract that is fair and equitable to both IBU employees and the State,” Tshibaka said. “We bumped up our last offer 25% because we do not want to disrupt coastal operations in the height of Alaska's tourism season.”
One of the contract items the union wants to get rid of is a cost of living differential, referred to as COLD. According to DOA, the current COLD agreement says employees will be paid based on where they live. DOA says IBU wants all employees regardless if they live in Alaska or Outside to be paid as much as those who live in-state.
“They make about $4 less an hour if they're from out of state,” Secchitano said. “It’s based on a 1977 statute, which really the cost of living in Seattle is really high. You have to make about $70,000 in Seattle to be able to live there and so that person is making about $18 an hour because they live in Seattle instead of Alaska.”
Secchitano says the state verifies residency for ferry workers through PFD applications. She says some ferry workers don’t file a PFD for personal reasons. The state then asks for documentation ranging from mortgage records to Alaska Airlines accounts to prove residency. During this process, Secchitano says, the state cuts workers’ wages immediately.
"We’ve got people that have been, had their wages cut for a year while the state verifies that you really live here which you’ve lived here all your life,” she said. “So it’s really a witch-hunt on our members and we’re tired of it.”
IBU also takes issue with the state's latest proposed health care option.
The state offers IBU members an economy plan if they can’t afford the standard plan, but DOA’s latest proposal includes a new requirement for workers to pay into it.
The department offered a one-time lump sum payment of $1,500 to offset out-of-pocket health care costs. IBU says this would not cover their members’ needs especially since they have not received wage increases throughout contract negotiations.
“Our members are not highly paid,” she said. “Maybe the top is $31 an hour, but the IBU up and down the coast, this is not the highest wage earner up here just to say that. So you’re paying that much out of pocket, plus you’re paying for your vision and dental.”
Among other issues the union faces is Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s $46 million cut to the Alaska Marine Highway System, limiting ferries in communities across the state.
DOA says IBU represents about 400 members. Commissioner Tshibaka says those who are taking part in the IBU strike could be subject to disciplinary action ranging from a letter of warning to a suspension, and even termination.
"The IBU is striking to force the state to agree to terms which would violate the Alaska Public Employment Relations Act," Tshibaka said in a teleconference Wednesday. "What that means is that if the IBU is in support of unlawful contract proposals, and we're convinced that's the case here, then that means the strike is not lawful or proper under Alaska or federal law."
According to Tshibaka, union officers and agents would be responsible for reimbursing the state for any and all economic losses during the strike. John McKinnon, commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, says July and August are high revenue months for the state.
Apart from travel, the ferry system is used to carry vehicles and large freight.
"We're reaching out to the ticketed passengers, getting rebooked, helping them with other travel arrangements and refunding tickets," McKinnon said. "We're investigating, looking into ways to get their vehicles to get to their final destinations."
The Alaska Marine Highway System confirmed in a statement posted on their website that all ferry services have been halted.
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