Ferry workers’ testimony cut short again on salary bill

State ferry Fairweather

The crew of the state ferry Fairweather gets ready to tie up to the dock in Sitka. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld)

For the second time this legislative session, Alaska Marine Highway workers were shut out from testifying against a bill that would cut their salaries.

Senate Bill 182 from Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, would get rid of a geographic bonus for Alaska residents who work on state ferries. With a major port in Bellingham, Wash., the ferry system employs a large number of nonresidents. It’s the only state agency where salaries are based on the cost of living in Seattle as opposed to Anchorage. Dyson’s bill would eliminate that provision, which has been in state statute for more than 30 years. The state would save millions of dollars in wages paid to workers, according to the Department of Administration.

When SB182 was in the Senate State Affairs Committee, Dyson closed public testimony after hearing from only four people, despite the dozens who signed up. On Friday, 20 people wanted to testify on the bill in the Senate Finance Committee. But before they could, committee co-chair Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said there wouldn’t be enough time.

“I apologize, we are not going to be able to get to the public testimony on this bill today,” Meyer said.

Meyer said he would reschedule public testimony for Monday. But the move frustrated members of the three labor unions representing marine highway employees.

“It’s disappointing for people to take time out of their lives to testify on something they feel passionately about, and not get an opportunity to voice their opinion,” said Ben Goldrich, Alaska representative for the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association.

The bill is being debated as the unions are negotiating new contracts with the Parnell administration. A new version of the legislation introduced Friday would only affect workers hired after June 2014; current employees would keep their higher pay.

Goldrich says that doesn’t make the bill any easier to swallow.

“Our major sticking point is that we’re up at the hill discussing it at all,” Goldrich said. “Normally the issue that’s before the Senate is something that we would resolve at the negotiating table.”

State Director of Personnel and Labor Relations Nicki Neal told the committee that state negotiators have made similar offers to the unions to grandfather the in-state geographic bonuses of current employees.

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, a former state labor commissioner and union administrator, said he was concerned the bill could influence negotiations.

“It could maybe slow down or have some angst on either side when something like this comes out,” Bishop said. “Not saying that the bill’s bad, but it could just shed a different light on the good faith effort on negotiations.”

Dyson said the bill is simply an attempt to bring more fairness and consistency to the contracts of ferry workers.

“The current statute is obsolete and it is different than any of the other bargaining units,” Dyson said.

Finance committee co-chair Meyer said those who want to have their opinions heard on the bill are welcome to send emails. Lawmakers have already received dozens of written comments in opposition to the measure.

Goldrich says state ferry workers will be back on Monday to testify on the bill.

“I have no doubt that we’ll be able to get some of the same people and some new people as well,” he said.

Besides MEBA, ferry workers are represented by the Inland Boatman’s Union, and the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.

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