JUNEAU — Hundreds of ferry workers went on strike Wednesday after failing to reach agreement on a contract, a move that state officials called unlawful and disruptive during the busy summer travel season.
Robb Arnold, a spokesman for Alaska’s Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, said the strike began Wednesday afternoon after a meeting with state personnel officials did not yield an agreement. He said the union remains open to a deal.
“Unfortunately, we had to take this action,” he said, noting earlier that 86% of the union’s membership had authorized a strike.
Areas of disagreement include pay increases and health care benefits. The union said service cuts are a key issue.
The state budget includes cuts to the system and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has said it wants a consultant to identify possible ways to reduce the state’s financial responsibility to the system, which is seen as an important transportation link for many coastal communities.
Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka told reporters the strike is unlawful and said the state was doing all it can to end it, “short of capitulating” to demands she called unreasonable and expensive.
She said the union is striking to force Alaska to agree to terms that would violate the state Public Employment Relations Act. If the strike is in support of unlawful contract proposals, which she said the state believes is the case, then the strike is not lawful or proper and can leave striking workers open to discipline, she said.
Tshibaka said she has to be intentionally vague with what she discloses publicly but said the state is sharing specific issues with the union.
John MacKinnon, commissioner of the state transportation department, said ships will be maintained at port. He said that could be complicated if the other two unions representing ferry workers refuse to cross picket lines.
MacKinnon said the department, which oversees the ferry system, was refunding passenger tickets, helping passengers with other travel arrangements and looking at ways to get passenger vehicles to their final destinations.
He said the timing of the strike is unfortunate, noting the Southeast Alaska State Fair is happening this weekend in Haines.
“We’re disappointed that they chose this time to do it,” he said. “I think there was probably some calculation behind that.”
The Department of Administration said late Tuesday the sides were at an impasse following the rejection of “numerous fair and fiscally responsible contract offers.”
The union represents about 430 workers, the department said. Talks between the state and union have gone on for over 2 1/2 years, Tshibaka said.
The union said the state proposed mandatory overtime instead of hiring more workers and a one-year contract instead of “more efficient” three-year agreements. It also cited what it says has been poor treatment by management.
According to the department, the state, under the prior administration, offered a 5% pay increase over three years. The union proposed a 9% pay increase over three years and allowing workers to choose which ships they work on. That would have limited the state’s ability to manage the ferries as effectively as possible, the department said.
Tshibaka said the state had asked the union to meet with a federal mediator Thursday. “But they declined and instead you see what they’re doing,” she said, adding that the state thinks it has “new and creative solutions” to the dispute.
• By Becky Bohrer, Associated Press