IBU Strike Shuts Down Alaska Marine Highway System

IBU members on strike in Valdez (IBU)

By The Maritime Executive 08-01-2019 08:47:18

A seafarers' strike has shut down the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) for more than a week, and negotiations to resume service are still in progress. It is the first strike affecting Alaska's ferry service in more than four decades. 

AMHS employees represented by the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific (IBU) went on strike on July 24 in what union leaders describe as the culmination of three years of unsuccessful negotiations with the ferry system's administrators. The union is calling for a nine percent pay raise over the next three years, which the state has rejected. Instead, the administration of Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy has proposed to freeze IBU wages for the next five years, the union says. The other unions representing AMHS mariners and employees are not on strike but are honoring IBU's picket lines. 

In part, the strike is motivated by Gov. Dunleavy's attempt to enact dramatic cutbacks at AMHS. “The Governor cut $46 million out of the AMHS’s operating budget, slashing ferry service to the communities that depend on us for their lifeline,” said Trina Arnold, the director of IBU's Alaska division. “There’s 107,301 Alaskans who live in communities served by the ferry that will lose their regular service." 

The union also alleges that the AMHS' new hire attrition rate is high due to "poor treatment by management," and that AMHS is using too much mandatory overtime to operate instead of hiring in more seafarers. 

The state, represented by commissioner for administration Kelly Tshibaka, contends that the strike is illegal because the union's contract proposal contains an allegedly unlawful segment. In a letter to the IBU, Tshibaka wrote that the union's proposed membership clause conflicts with a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which overturned the right of public-sector unions to charge dues to non-members. Tshibaka warned that because of this clause, the state does not consider the strike to be protected by Alaska state law, leaving open the possibility that employees who participate in the strike could be fired. "Moreover, your union likely will be responsible for reimbursing damages to the state caused by any unlawful strike," Tshibaka wrote.

Talks between the two sides continued this week with assistance from a federal mediator. “We want to go back to work,” IBU's Trina Arnold told the Juneau Empire. “We’re not asking for much. We just want a fair contract.”

Correction: This article originally reported the IBU's contract wage increase request as "three percent over three years." The correct amount is nine percent over three years.