In Ketchikan, stranded passengers and striking workers as Alaska’s ferry system shuts down

Crew members from the ferry Columbia erected a picket line in Ketchikan on July 24, 2019, after the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific called the first ferry strike in more than 40 years. (Photo by Maria Dudzak/KRBD)

The largest union representing ferry workers called a strike at 2 p.m. Wednesday, shutting down the Alaska Marine Highway System until further notice.

‘A little bit of a hassle’

In Ketchikan, approximately 30 picketing ferry workers stood on the sidewalk outside the AMHS terminal where the ferry Columbia was set to depart for Bellingham, Washington. They gripped signs and chanted slogans demanding a fair contract as cars passed by and honked.

About a dozen cars waited in the parking lot, some with 2-5 passengers, others with children — all wondering if they’ll be able to make their ferry connection to Bellingham.

It’s the busiest time of the year for the Alaska Marine Highway System, with vacationers and Alaskans alike headed to the Lower 48. (Photo by Maria Dudzak/KRBD)

As it turns out, probably not.

Monty Anderson just completed a fishing trip on Prince of Wales Island.

Well, we got 100 pounds of salmon in the back that might ruin, and we’re all going to be late for work,” he said. “So it’s going to be a little bit of a hassle.”

He’s headed back to start a new job but isn’t sure if he’ll make it in time.

“I’m supposed to be in San Diego on Monday,” he said. “And if I don’t make it there, they’re gonna hire another crane operator, so it’ll be a big inconvenience.”

Melanie Fehr lives in Craig on Prince of Wales Island. Her truck is loaded for a long drive to Arizona.

I’ve gotta get my kids down south for some school,” she said. “They start school on the seventh, so they’ve got a long way to go.”

Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner John MacKinnon said in a statement that shoreside support would be offered for rebooking or refunds for ticketed passengers.

The Alaska Marine Highway System shut down after a strike was called by the IBU at 2 p.m. Wednesday. (Photo by Maria Dudzak/KRBD)

Negotiations at an impasse

In Juneau, officers of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific said a last-ditch effort at compromise with state labor negotiators failed Wednesday afternoon.

The union had warned the night before that a strike was imminent if it didn’t get a contract deal. It’s been negotiating for the past three years. An impasse last week led a majority of members to vote to authorize taking direct action.

“I’ve negotiated for 25 years and, you know, had probably two strikes in my life,” said Marina Secchitano, president of the union. “You know, it takes a special circumstance to get 86% of your membership voting for a strike.”

IBU has about 430 members who work on AMHS ferries.

Robb Arnold, vice chair of the union’s Alaska region executive board, acknowledged there are concerns that a strike could play into the hands of the state ferry system’s critics.

Maybe it is a trap,” he said. “Maybe they have set it for us. But you know what? I think that cooler minds in the (Alaska) Legislature do not want to see this system shut down.

IBU’s last Alaska ferry strike was in 1977.

KRBD’s Elizabeth Gabriel in Ketchikan contributed to this report.

Jacob Resneck, CoastAlaska

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director based in Juneau. CoastAlaska is our partner in Southeast Alaska. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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