IBU strike shuts down Alaska ferries

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. The Alaska Marine Highway System has shut down until further notice.

In Ketchikan, approximately 30 picketing ferry workers stood on the sidewalk outside Alaska Marine Highway System 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 two to five passengers, others with children—all wondering if they’ll be able to make their ferry connection to Bellingham.

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.”

Anderson is 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,” Anderson said. “And if I don’t make it there, they’re gonna hire another crane operator so it’ll be a big inconvenience.”

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)

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, they start school on the seventh so they’ve got a long way to go,” she said.

In Juneau, officers of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific say 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 by 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 voted for a strike.”

The union’s regional vice chair Robb Arnold 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 legislature do not want to see this system shut down.

IBU has about 430 members who work on ferries. The other two unions aren’t striking but have said they won’t cross picket lines.

Arnold says community support will be important.

We need people to show up to the lines,” he said. “You know, help us get your signs out. Come on down. I said you want Southeast to exist. We need to stand up right now.”

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

State officials have said the union’s demands for an annual 3 percent pay increase over the next three years is unreasonable.

Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka warned in a letter late Tuesday that one of the union’s demands violated a recent Supreme Court decision making the strike unlawful

It said workers could be terminated for not showing up or walking off the job.

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

The last Alaska ferry strike was in 1977.

With additional reporting from KRBD’s Elizabeth Gabriel in Ketchikan.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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