Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Ferry strike leaves lasting impact


August 8, 2019 | View PDF

The ferry workers’ strike that flustered business and tourism in Haines for more than a week may have lasting consequences for the future of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), said Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference.

Southeast Conference is an economic development organization that advocates for AMHS at the state level. “I think it’s a little early to tell for sure, but I fear there may be long-term impacts,” Venables said. “I am not dismissive of any of the concerns that the members (of IBU) have, but the strategy of going on strike was very concerning.”

The nine-day strike led by the largest ferry workers’ union in Alaska, the Inlandboatman’s Union (IBU), depressed fair turnout in Haines, stranded visitors and disrupted service to 35 communities in Southeast. As of Friday, the Alaska Department of Transportation cancelled trips for 8,456 passengers, 2,401 vehicles and refunded $3,257,097 in fares.

On Aug. 1, after days of negotiation through a federal mediator, the IBU reached a tentative agreement with the state, effectively ending their strike. The union ratified the agreement the next night, with 93 percent of the union voting in favor. Ferry service resumed Sunday, Aug. 4.

“I thought (the agreement) was fair. I think that both sides walked away with what we wanted,” said IBU vice president Robb Arnold. According to Arnold, ferry workers received second and third-year wage increases of 1.5 percent, full-time healthcare, and workers on the Lituya boat that serves Metlakala received wages commensurate with AMHS’s other employees.

“I think the state is better off and everyone is going to move ahead better, especially our IBU employees,” Department of Administration commissioner Kelly Tshibaka said Friday.

But Venables said the capacity for communities and private businesses to manage without AMHS during the strike may be further incentive for an administration eager to cut funding for the ferries.

“What we saw when the IBU went on strike was that the private sector stepped in to help move folks around. Between the airlines and the different boating industries, the barge lines—they tried to move as many folks as possible and were seen as somewhat successful in that,” he said.

Venables said the expansion of private companies to fill the gaps in ferry service may be enough for the state to cut funding for AMHS in the future.

Local catamaran company Alaska Fjordlines hauled 200 people to Haines for the fair, owner Alison Jacobson said. The company added a roundtrip between Haines and Juneau every day during its busiest week of the year as the strike continued. “We were running basically non-stop,” Jacobson said.

Alaska Seaplanes general manager Carl Ramseth said they more than tripled service between Haines and Juneau during the fair, flying almost 200 passengers to Juneau in a single day. “We will continue to add flights where we can to meet the demand for all 13 destinations we serve from Juneau,” wrote Ramseth in an email.

“I’ve heard many (people) comment that if the state just gets out of the way, the private sector will step in. I don’t believe that to be true,” Venables said.

“We need to have access to our ferry system and privatization is just going to jack the prices up,” Arnold said. Like Venables, Arnold said the strike, “brought up the whole idea of the future of AMHS,” but he disagreed with Venables’ fears that the strike showed the value of a privatized system. “When you have a private system, prices will go up. People can’t afford that right now.”

For passengers, a one-way trip from Haines to Juneau on Alaska Fjordlines costs $135, and a one-way flight on Alaska Seaplanes costs between $134 and $143. A one-way passenger ticket on the ferry costs $58.

Despite added costs, some local business, fed up with the fractured ferry schedule this year, are looking beyond the ferry system. Olerud’s owner Sarah Swinton said the grocery store recently switched the last of its goods shipped by the ferry to the Alaska Marine Lines (AML) barge.

“We just decided to switch to the barge, because there wasn’t going to be a couple weeks of ferry service in November and January,” Swinton said.

Olerud’s will now get its bread, pop, chips, and cigarettes delivered on the barge. Swinton said she doesn’t know yet if that will cost them more money.

Local grocery store IGA has been using the barge exclusively to ship its goods for ... years.


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