By Leigh Armstrong

The Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific went on strike Wednesday against the Alaska Marine Highway System after contract negotiations failed to reach a settlement. 

The Malaspina docked in Skagway mid-afternoon Wednesday and ferry terminal staff told passengers that the ship would depart for Haines and Juneau — but no farther. The ferry’s original southbound end point had been Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

Employees at the Skagway ferry terminal offered passengers booked beyond Juneau a refund. 

Rod Brunes, an Alberta motorcyclist traveling to Prince Rupert with his wife, opted to take the refund and travel by road instead. “I’d rather be turned away here having a road than not being able to get out in Juneau,” he said.  

“The implication to the community is staggering,” said Cody Jennings, Skagway’s tourism. The strike comes during the busy summer season, when residents and visitors are heavily reliant on the service, she said. 

The municipality is unsure how long the strike will affect the community. In a public post on Facebook, Mayor Andrew Cremata wrote: “I wish I had better news but this strike could last a while. Both sides appear entrenched.” 

The next scheduled ferry arrival in Skagway had been the LeConte at 1:30 p.m. Friday, but it was no longer 

   available for booking on the state website as of Wednesday afternoon. “Alaska Marine Highway vessels will not be sailing until further notice,” the website said. 

“We are reaching out to ticketed passengers to work with them to reschedule, or offer refunds for tickets,” the website said. “We are working to return ships to safe harbor with adequate shoreside support. Your patience is appreciated as we work through the logistics of getting passengers rerouted.” 

The strike started early afternoon Wednesday when IBU members walked off the Columbia when it docked in Ketchikan on its southbound run to Bellingham, Washington. Other ships were expected to stay at dock as they reached port and the system shut down. 

The IBU has been negotiating to reach a new contract with the state since 2017, working under a series of short-term agreements, according to the Anchorage Daily News. 

The union met with state negotiations under then-Gov. Bill Walker and then continued talks with the Gov. Mike Dunleavy administration, which took office in December, but failed to reach an agreement. The IBU reported this week its members had voted 86 percent against the Dunleavy administration contract offer, authorizing a strike. 

The last ferry system strike by the IBU was in July 1977 and lasted 20 days. 

The union is seeking a pay increase, more money for health insurance and the ability for workers to choose which ship they work on. 

In a letter from the state Department of Administration to the IBU on July 23, the state said the strike is not allowed and every striking employee could be fired. 

In an email sent July 23, Nancy Sutch, deputy director of the Division of Personnel and Labor Relations at the Department of Administration, warned the IBU that a strike would be illegal. “However, if you choose to strike anyway, the next step is to schedule for the return of our vessels to safe harbor,” Sutch said in the email. 

The IBU represents about 430 employees of the Alaska Marine Highway System. 

The ferry system’s other unions, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association and the Masters, Mates and Pilots Union, are not involved, but reportedly are not crossing the IBU’s picket lines.