Alaska News

Ferry workers’ union, state meet with federal mediator to discuss contract

The state and the union representing Alaska’s striking ferry workers met with a federal mediator Saturday over contract negotiations.

The meeting marks a step forward for the Alaska Department of Administration and the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific after heightened tensions between the groups this week. A long-running impasse over union workers’ employment contract escalated into a strike Wednesday. State ferry service has been halted along the Alaska Marine Highway System, a crucial transportation system for many coastal Alaska communities, since then.

Representatives with each side were meeting Saturday afternoon in Juneau with a mediator from an independent agency called the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said Matt Shuckerow, press secretary for Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“We are happy to see this progress,” Shuckerow said.

By 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the meeting with the mediator hadn’t yet concluded, and it was unclear how long negotiations might last. IBU board vice chair Robb Arnold said he’d been placed under a gag order by the mediator not to discuss the negotiations with members of the media.

[As strike continues, ferry service stoppage has a big impact on Alaska coastal communities]

The union’s last three-year contract expired in 2017, and the organization has been working under interim agreements since then. Mediation under former Gov. Bill Walker and also under Dunleavy has not resulted in an agreement.


This is the first strike of IBU’s ferry workers since 1977. The strike was the union’s “last resort,” Arnold said earlier in the week.

“We have some things that have to be worked out, but we need to come together and just talk,” Arnold said Friday evening. Workers continued striking Saturday.

The state had refunded fares for 5,967 passengers and 1,800 vehicles as of Saturday afternoon, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said in an email. Those refunded fares totaled $2.3 million, she said.

On Friday, the state sent a letter to IBU workers participating in the strike, warning them that if the strike continued past Aug. 1 their health insurance premiums would not be covered by the state.

The state has said the strike is illegal because of a provision that was included in the union’s demands. While the union said its demands did not include a violation, it changed its proposal, but the state still sees the stoppage as unlawful.

A cease and desist letter that IBU’s lawyers sent to Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka on Friday said that claim amounted to a threat by the state.

While representatives from the ferry workers union and state were meeting in Juneau, Alaskans spoke to lawmakers at a House Transportation Committee meeting in Cordova on Saturday about broader concerns over ferry service cuts.

For the fiscal year that started July 1, the Legislature approved steep funding cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System totaling $43.6 million, or about 31% of the prior year’s budget. According to a draft winter ferry schedule released earlier this month, those cuts mean no ferry service for Prince William Sound communities, including Cordova, for more than six months. Kodiak and Unalaska would lose service for 3 1/2 months, and Juneau would have no northbound service for about 2 1/2 months.

More than 240 people were at the Cordova Legislative Information Office for the meeting, according to Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau. One poster displayed at the meeting read: “Settle w/ IBU NOW!”

Meanwhile, the strike has attracted attention from former Vice President Joe Biden, who tweeted about it on Friday and is running for president in next year’s election.

“The marine transit system in Alaska is vital to rural communities — but faces draconian cuts in funding,” Biden said on Twitter. “IBU is on strike to ensure this lifeline for Alaskans will continue to serve communities from Ketchikan to Kodiak. The governor must restore full funding immediately.”

Negotiations between IBU and the state have been ongoing for years, since before the current budget gridlock in Juneau. However, IBU during this strike has cited recent budget cuts to the state’s ferry service among its concerns.

On Biden’s comment about “draconian cuts,” Arnold said: “No, that’s not why we’re striking. It’s because we haven’t had a contract ... but it’s great that Joe Biden is taking notice of what’s going on in Alaska.”

Reporter Madeline McGee contributed to this article.

Annie Zak

Annie Zak was a business reporter for the ADN between 2015 and 2019.