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Alaska News

Alaska ferry workers strike continues with union, state ‘working through’ issues

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: July 30, 2019
  • Published July 29, 2019

Alaska’s state ferries remained docked Monday as union workers entered the sixth day of their strike over contract negotiations.

Representatives with the Alaska Department of Administration and with the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific met over the weekend with a federal mediator in an effort to make progress on those negotiations, which have been ongoing for years.

After more than 20 hours of negotiations, the mediator “has recessed talks until a later date,” the Department of Administration said in a written statement Monday afternoon.

"While we were encouraged the IBU finally returned to the negotiating table with the Federal Mediator, this strike and the harm it’s inflicting remains a significant concern to the State, Marine Highway System employees, their families, and the entire coastal region,” Department of Transportation & Public Facilities Commissioner John MacKinnon said in the statement.

“There were positive steps in our meeting that should allow both sides to reach a solution,” Trina Arnold, director of IBU’s Alaska region, said in a written statement from the union Monday morning.

Robb Arnold, vice chair of the IBU board, said Monday afternoon in a phone interview that "there’s issues and we’re working through them.”

All vessel sailings are canceled through Tuesday, according to an update posted on the state’s website Friday. The ferry Kennicott is canceled through Wednesday, Aug. 7, the post said.

The strike started last Wednesday, and is the first strike of IBU’s ferry workers since 1977.

Alaska’s ferry system has 11 ships, with nine in service: Aurora, Columbia, Kennicott, LeConte, Lituya, Malaspina, Matanuska, Tazlina and Tustumena. Suspended ferry service has halted state sailings along the Alaska Marine Highway System, a key transit route for dozens of Alaska coastal communities, many of which don’t have road access.

The state had issued fare refunds totaling $2.8 million to 6,554 passengers as of Monday evening, transportation department spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said in an email.

IBU’s last three-year contract expired in 2017, and the union has been working under interim agreements ever since. Mediation under former Gov. Bill Walker and also under current Gov. Mike Dunleavy has not resulted in an agreement. (You can read more about the specifics of what the IBU is seeking in the contract here.)

“We continue to try and come up with a package that both sides can live with,” Dunleavy said in a phone call Monday afternoon with reporters. “We are concerned that the ferry workers who are our friends, neighbors, and family, our state workers — we want to come up with a fair package that, under the current fiscal situation and what is projected, we can all live with and we can afford, and is sustainable.”

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

In a cease and desist letter dated Friday, an attorney for IBU told Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka that such claims are false and “amount to unlawful threats."

Since presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden’s tweet about the work stoppage Friday, other 2020 candidates have also weighed in. U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, both running for president, commented on the strike via Twitter.

“The IBU just voted to strike for the first time in 42 years,” Sanders said in a Monday tweet. “They are striking for better working conditions and fully-funded ferry service for the community. I stand with the IBU in this and urge @GovDunleavy to bargain in good faith with these workers.”

Harris tweeted about the strike on Saturday.

“I stand in solidarity with the hundreds of Alaska ferry workers who are currently on strike,” she wrote. “Alaskans deserve safe transportation options and the Inland Boatmen’s Union and its members deserve fair wages and safe working conditions.”

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