- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - State legislative leaders have called on Gov. Sean Parnell to “hold the line” in contract talks with the Alaska Marine Highway System’s unions.

The state is negotiating new contracts with unions representing ferry workers.

The lawmakers, in a letter dated Feb. 26, note that the Senate rejected recommended pay raises for state commissioners. They said highly paid staff are “the least able to justify pay increases in austere times.”

The lawmakers said they hear from constituents on the high cost of operating the ferry system - “costs which need considerable effort to control” - and encouraged Parnell to “consider fiscally prudent monetary terms” in negotiations “such as closing extravagant benefits like ferry passes and readdressing cost of living differentials.”

The lawmakers said they weighed in on contract negotiations for state and university workers last year, hoping to see contracts that did not increase labor costs. The state’s funding picture is bleaker now, they said.

“We value Marine Highway System employees and want to protect their jobs as best we can,” the lawmakers wrote. “Making it more and more expensive to keep them employed will ultimately not be in their best interests, or in the best interests of the Alaskans who rely on the Marine Highway Ferry System.”

The letter was signed by House Speaker Mike Chenault, Senate President Charlie Huggins and the co-chairs of the House and Senate Finance committees, Reps. Alan Austerman and Bill Stoltze and Sens. Pete Kelly and Kevin Meyer.

One of the benefits for current and retired ferry workers with three vessel unions and their immediate families has been free ferry passes, though they are only allowed to be used on a stand-by basis and cannot bump paying customers. Shore-side unions do not receive that benefit.

Proposed budget language on the House side last year called for the department of transportation to stop issuing free passes for vehicles of state agencies, state employees or retirees and their families on the ferry system, but that proposal was taken out. House Finance adopted similar language Tuesday to include in its version of next year’s operating budget.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, has said it’s not the job of legislators to get involved in contract talks. A state transportation department spokesman, Jeremy Woodrow, has said the department has a policy of moving vehicles on ferries on a standby basis. But because of the time-sensitive nature of some of the work the department does, it often just pays for the space, he said. The department has taken steps to do away with other ride-along programs, Woodrow said.

Union representatives have defended the passes, which allow for passengers and vehicles, noting that those who use the passes also buy meals and pay for cabins they use, contributing to revenues. While there was a fare value of about $1.8 million in 2013 for the passes, according to information provided by the department, union representatives have said that’s unfair to look at it in those terms.

“Zero is the number,” Ricky Deising, regional director of the InlandBoatmen’s Union of the Pacific, one of the unions representing ferry workers, said Tuesday.

It’s “absolutely incorrect” to suggest the state loses money with the passes because the space wasn’t otherwise being used, Deising said. The issue of the passes comes up during each round of negotiations, he said.

A bill currently pending in the Senate would remove the cost-of-living differential.

Ben Goldrich, representative for the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, said he was aware of the lawmakers’ letter to Parnell and called the timing of the Senate bill unfortunate, given that talks are ongoing.

He would not call the union’s benefits package extravagant, Goldrich said.

Every time the union meets with the state, it’s entering into negotiations in good faith, which means the union has an obligation to take into consideration the overall health of the state and “certainly that weighs heavily on our mind when we’re in talks,” he said.

But Goldrich said other bargaining units saw some increases last year, though not large, and when there are cuts to the marine highway system, employees have to absorb those cuts.

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