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Ferry unions under fire in Olympia

"The battle to fund ferries is nearly over. In less than a week, the Legislature must call a truce by passing one of three proposed state budgets.Throughout the budget battle, one group has been consistently in the line of fire: Labor unions.Washington State Ferries executive director Paul Green blamed unions for inflexible ferry schedules when he announced ferry service cutbacks to a group of commuters.Sen. Bob Oke, R-26th District, accused labor unions of opposing any solution to the ferry funding crisis that compromises union contracts.Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-35th District, said unions are trying to dictate policies that don't serve the public interest.Labor lobbyists successfully blocked the ferry bill that Sheldon and Oke crafted. But what were they fighting for? The union contracts so routinely criticized are rarely spelled out.Three unions represent state ferry workers:* The Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific includes seamen and deckhands, galley workers and the people who direct cars for ferry loading.* The Masters, Mates and Pilots Union includes ship captains and other deck officers. * The Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association represents engine room operators, chief engineers and oilers who do heavy lifting and equipment checks.Washington State Ferries labor relations specialist Mike Manning said 85 percent of the ferry system's employees are union members. Like other unions, the groups negotiate contracts with the ferry system for pay scale, working conditions and benefits.Unlike other unions, ferry workers do not have the right to strike, slow down work or take a collective sick leave. They can only negotiate through the Marine Employees' Commission.People have been saying that labor contracts tie Washington State Ferries' hands, said Pare Abbott, lobbyist for the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association. But that's just not the case. They are free to come to labor at any time to renegotiate the contract.Abbott admitted he feels vilified by legislators' and ferry administrators' attacks on labor contracts. He said the contracts aren't exorbitant. They (provide) fair, family wages, he said.Without a contract, (private companies) are paying six, seven, eight bucks an hour for marine workers, Abbott added. That's not a living standard.Unions were the most vocal opponents of ferry bills introduced during the current legislative session that is scheduled to end next week, because they claimed privatization of ferries would slash workers' wages and benefits.Abandoning those (contracts) would leave us with no work rules, no safeguards, no guidelines, Abbott said. We'd be back at point zero.Abbott defended the high wages compared to transit workers and other union contracts because, he said, marine workers have a very high level of training. They must pass Coast Guard tests, receive firefighting training and work their way up the ranks.Manning, the ferry system's labor relations manager, added that workers can spend years moving up through the ranks from temporary mate to second mate, chief mate and captain.By contrast, it takes about two months in the classroom and on the road for Kitsap Transit drivers to earn their stripes, according to Ellen Gustafson, director of operations and facilities for the bus service.Critics and cost-cutters in the Legislature claimed the union deals are too sweet, especially in light of Initiative 695 cutbacks. But Abbott stands by the contract.We are not embarrassed by the contract, not by any means, he said.Here's what's in the contract:* Typical salary: For oilers, $19 an hour for top engineers; $33 an hour for deck officers (mates), beginning at $27; for masters (captains), $34.75 an hour.* Typical work schedule: For masters and mates, work days are eight hours with some nine or seven-hour shifts. Engineers work 12 hours per day for seven days straight, then one week off. Some engineers and oilers on passenger-only boats work eight hours per day, five days per week.* Overtime: Workers are paid double their regular hourly rate. For shifts longer than 16 hours when Washington State Ferries fails to relieve a worker, it's triple time.* Penalty time: For cleaning bilges, handling hazardous materials and other nasty jobs, workers are paid $19 per hour on top of their regular wage.* Split shifts: No ferry worker's contract has provisions for this. However, a union representative said split shifts are something ferry officials could bring to the table for negotiation.Before I-695, the ferry system planned to spend $218.4 million on labor - about 70 percent of its operating budget. That amount covers labor costs for a two-year period for its 1,986 employees. According to Patricia Patterson, a Washington State Ferries spokeswoman, 80.5 percent of the labor costs are in wages and the rest are for employee benefits. Overtime is also budgeted into the labor cost total.Bus drivers for Kitsap Transit have a substantially different contract than marine employees. This is how it stacks up:* Typical hourly salary: For paratransit bus drivers, $11.52; for small routed-bus drivers, $14.15; for large routed-bus drivers, $17.73.* Typical work schedule: 40 hours per week concentrated during peak commuter hours.* Overtime: Time and a half paid for more than 40 hours per week.* Penalty time: Time and a half paid when a driver's split shift spans more than 15 hours in a given day. So if a driver works 4-8 a.m., then returns to drive 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., that is a 16 hour spread, warranting one hour of penalty time pay.* Split shifts: Prior to Initiative 695, some drivers worked split shifts. Since it forced major service cuts, the majority of drivers now work split shifts. Gustafson said the biggest difference between transit and ferry contracts is this provision."

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