Alaska ferry workers union explains why strike happened — and what workers gained from it

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)

It was a sunny afternoon, and the ferry Columbia was loaded with hundreds of passengers and cars preparing to depart for Bellingham, Washington.

Then half the crew walked off. Some picked up placards and signs and formed a picket line at Ketchikan’s ferry terminal.

Capt. Josh McGrath called the Columbia’s stunned passengers for an impromptu announcement: The Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific had called a strike. It was out of his hands.

“So we are here until the IBU returns,” McGrath said at the time. “We can’t legally sail the ship without them.”

The fleet remained tied to the dock for 11 days, while the state of Alaska and the largest Alaska ferry workers union worked through a federal mediator to hammer out a contract.

That day, Carrie Martinsen of Petersburg told local radio station KFSK she was trying to get her daughter to Tennessee to start college. She said the situation was fluid.

“They’ve said that it would be probably a few days, and if it goes on too long then they’ll just basically cancel this sailing and go to the next week sailing if the strike were to break up,” she said.

It took the state and IBU nine days to resolve the contract dispute. The Alaska Marine Highway System didn’t get back up and running until two days later.

In all, 8,570 passengers were affected along with 2,468 vehicles. Refunds cost the system upwards of $3.3 million. It was the busiest time of year and caught many — including Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration — off-guard.

“It surprised me as much as it surprised the rest of Alaska,” said Alaska Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka.

Tshibaka led the state’s negotiating team with the IBU. So why did the ferry system’s largest union strike?

“I think that that is something you’re going to have to go to IBU for, because I still puzzle over that,” Tshibaka said.

People hold picket signs at the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry facilities in Juneau during the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific strike on July 25, 2019. (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

Robb Arnold works as chief purser on the ferry Malaspina and is a member of IBU’s negotiating team. He said the strike didn’t just happened overnight.

“The state just kept ramping up the, you know, pressure on us, and we just had to do what we had to do with economic sanctions,” Arnold said.

The contract negotiations predate the Dunleavy administration. The IBU’s 430-odd members were still working off their last contract that expired in 2017. This year, they were asked to forgo any wage adjustments — that would be up for negotiation next year. Both sides presented what they termed their “final and best offer” before the state declared an impasse.

“Eighty-six percent of our members rejected that offer and gave us authorization to strike,” Arnold said.

So what did the IBU win? First, it got a three-year contract. The state had been offering a one-year term. The union workers still have their pay frozen at 2017 levels. But they’ll get a 1.5% increase in 2020 and the year after that.

From the state’s perspective, the IBU agreed that its members would begin contributing toward their health plan in 2021. But they also don’t automatically lose coverage during months when they’re not working.

The union also softened its stance on pay hikes. Tshibaka said higher wages translate into less money to run the system. Ferry workers are hourly, so IBU members are only paid when they’re crewing a ship.

“So what we were really arguing for this whole time, is we were trying to maximize the number of routes we could run, so we can maximize service to the coastal communities and maximize the number of hours these IBU employees could work,” Tshibaka said.

There’s some important context here: The Alaska Legislature only appropriated $46 million to the ferry system for next fiscal year. That’s around $44 million less than last year, after years of cost-cutting. Under a draft winter schedule released last month, some coastal communities stand to lose service for seven months starting in October.

Legislators approve $46M for Alaska ferries to avert fall shutdown

Arnold said the 11-day shutdown could serve as a wake-up call.

“This is like a preview of coming attractions,” Arnold said. “So I think people realize, ‘Hey, this is what’s going to really happen.’ And so there’s more focus on the ferries.”

Both sides say they compromised and reached a fair contract.

“You know, they say the best negotiation is when there’s compromise, and people are not happy when they walk away from the table,” Arnold said. “So I think that’s kind of what happened here.”

Tshibaka credits IBU’s leadership in helping to end the strike. She said by the time they’d reach a deal, the tension in the room had lifted.

“And that’s very unusual, at the end of an action like this at the end of a labor dispute, to end on a positive note with the union representatives,” Tshibaka said. “And I was really happy about that.”

There are still finer points both sides agreed on.

The union also dropped a number of its demands: Members won’t be able to pick which vessels they work on. And out-of-state workers will continue to be paid less per hour than Alaska residents.

IBU members will no longer pay for hotels out of pocket. That’s been an issue with the fleet’s new Alaska Class Ferries — so-called “day boats” that lack crew quarters — forcing crew members to overnight in hotels between voyages, then waiting weeks to be reimbursed by the state.

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