Neil Calberon, right, mans the picket line with others on the third day of the Inland Boatmen’s Union of the Pacific’s strike against the Alaska Marine Highway System at the Auke Bay Terminal on Friday, July 26, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Neil Calberon, right, mans the picket line with others on the third day of the Inland Boatmen’s Union of the Pacific’s strike against the Alaska Marine Highway System at the Auke Bay Terminal on Friday, July 26, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Strike by Alaska ferry workers snarls travel plans

About 225 passengers and about 90 vehicles were stranded in ports that aren’t their final destination.

  • Saturday, July 27, 2019 9:06pm
  • News

JUNEAU — The first strike by Alaska ferry workers in over 40 years has snarled travel plans for thousands of people during the busy tourist and fishing season, leaving some stranded and catching the attention of a Democratic presidential candidate.

Members of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific went on strike Wednesday after failing to reach agreement with the state on contract terms, bringing Alaska’s ferry system to a halt.

State transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon said the department had cancelled reservations for more than 3,000 travellers as of early Friday and refunded more than $1 million in fares.

About 225 passengers and about 90 vehicles had been stranded in ports that aren’t their final destination, he said. He noted this is a peak travel time and that other options, including barges for vehicles and planes, have limited space.

A tweet Friday from former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, calls on Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy to restore full funding to the system, which lawmakers this year cut by more than $40 million. The cut was seen by some as a compromise with the Dunleavy administration, which initially proposed a deeper cut and has said it wants to find ways to reduce the cost of the system to the state.

State funds and fares are key components of the system’s budget, and July, August and September are important revenue months, MacKinnon said.

The ferries, an important transportation link for many small communities not connected to Alaska’s road system, run along 3,500 miles of coast from Bellingham, Washington, through Southeast Alaska and the Gulf of Alaska to the Aleutian island chain. Some communities are only accessible by air or water, and even those options can be limited.

Residents of some Southeast Alaska communities put their vehicles on a ferry to Juneau, a larger city of around 30,000 people, so they can load up on supplies at places like Costco. Some fish processors use ferries to transport refrigerator vans, MacKinnon said.

The last strike by ferry workers occurred in 1977 and lasted 20 days, said Meadow Bailey, communications director for the transportation department.

By email, she said the department is letting stranded passengers in Ketchikan with no other lodging options stay on board an idled ferry that had been bound for Bellingham until they can make alternate arrangements. She said fewer than 20 people were on board and had access to beds and showers.

Earlier this week, MacKinnon questioned the timing of the strike, coinciding with the Southeast Alaska State Fair. “We’re disappointed that they chose this time to do it,” he said. “I think there was probably some calculation behind that.”

The union says the dispute goes back nearly three years and cites health care, pay and cuts in ferry service as sticking points. Robb Arnold, a union spokesman, said workers are frustrated by a lack of communication on what the cuts could mean for them.

State Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka has called the strike unlawful and called on the union to meet with the state and a federal mediator.

The state said starting Aug. 1, striking employees will be responsible for paying their health insurance premiums.

Patti Mackey, president and CEO of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, called the strike a big deal. Many in her community work on ferries or they know someone who does, Mackey said. Ketchikan gets several thousand visitors a year who come by ferry, some with RVs, she said.

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, called the ferries essential infrastructure. He said it’s important for the two sides to resume talks and try to reach a resolution.

“There are people stuck and businesses hurting, and there’s already economic damage happening,” he said. “Anyone who thinks that this is painless and someone else is filling the void has not yet seen the whole picture.”

More in News

Vehicles are unleaded at the Seward Harbor after being moved from Lowell Point on Sunday, May 22, 2022 in Seward, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management)
Lowell Point barge services move 110-plus cars to Seward

The services were covered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough and ended Monday

Anglers fish on the Kenai River on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Watershed Forum receives matching grant from Conoco

The Kenai Watershed Forum was given a grant from ConocoPhillips to fund… Continue reading

A beach on the eastern side of Cook Inlet is photographed at Clam Gulch, Alaska, in June 2019. The Alaska Board of Fisheries is implementing new shellfish regulations in Cook Inlet. (Peninsula Clarion file)
Fish and Game closes East Cook Inlet razor clam fisheries

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed the Cook Inlet… Continue reading

Anastasia Scollon (left) and Willow King (right) stand in The Goods + Sustainable Grocery and Where it’s At mindful food and drink on Monday, May 16, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Sustainable shopping finds new home in Soldotna

The Collective used to operate out of Cook Inletkeeper’s Community Action Studio

The Alaska State Capitol is seen on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
Legislature modernizes 40-year-old definition of consent in sexual assault cases

‘Alaska took a gargantuan step forward in updating our laws,’ says deputy attorney general

Project stakeholders cut a ribbon at the Nikiski Shelter of Hope on Friday, May 20, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Stakeholders celebrate opening of Nikiski shelter

The shelter officially opened last December

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks with reporters Thursday about the state’s budget at the Alaska State Capitol. Dunleavy said lawmakers had sent a complete budget, and that there was no need for a special session.
Dunleavy: No need for special session

Governor calls budget “complete”

A magnet promoting the Alaska Reads Act released sits atop a stack of Alaskan-authored and Alaska-centric books. Lawmakers passed the Alaska Reads Act on the last day of the legislative session, but several members of the House of Representatives were upset with the bill, and the way it was passed. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
In last-minute move, Legislature passes early reading overhaul

Rural lawmakers push back on Alaska Reads Act

Graduates wait to receive diplomas during Connections Homeschool’s commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Connections honors more than 100 graduates

The home-school program held a ceremony Thursday in Soldotna

Most Read