Thousand of travelers stranded because state ferry managers "ran out of workers"
Blake Island, Washington – Campers and boaters were enjoying the sun Saturday at this popular state park set in the heart of Puget Sound when they noticed something odd. Across the water to the south ferry traffic between Fauntleroy, Vashon and Southworth, one of the busiest runs in the state system, was at a complete stand-still. Why ferry service would halt on an active summer weekend was a complete mystery. Speculation ranged from a snap union strike to simultaneous mechanical break-downs on all the ferries.
The public learned the answer Tuesday when The Seattle Times reported managers at the Washington State Ferry system were forced to cancel dozens of scheduled ferry runs on three busy routes due to union rules governing employee vacations and medical leave. As the Times put it, ferry managers “ran out of workers.”
Service for people living in King, Pierce, Kitsap, Jefferson and Island counties was disrupted. Thousands of families and other travelers were stranded as ferry managers waited for workers to return from personal time-off.
Most companies and agencies schedule temporary workers when regular employees take time off in the summer. At Washington State Ferries, however, collective bargaining rules likely bar ferry managers from hiring temporary maritime workers to fill the gap. Union rules apparently block ferry managers from seeking help from members of other maritime unions, such as the Seafarers International Union, or from experienced private-sector merchant crews and deck-hands available in the Puget Sound area.
The public has no way of knowing how these restrictions were created in the first place. Rules regarding employee time off are negotiated in secret by ferry managers and executives of the Inland Boatman’s Union and three other unions. Closed-door collective bargaining talks are strictly “off the record,” with no public access allowed to either the discussions themselves or to the proposals made by either side. Secret collective bargaining talks are not covered by freedom of information laws.
The shut-down of ferry service is an example of how the power of unions can harm the public interest. Port Townsend residents faced a five-hour drive to get to a destination they could normally reach in 35 minutes. Vashon residents were trapped on the island during the shutdown, except for private boaters and aircraft, and perhaps the odd long-distance swimmer.
Governor Inslee and state lawmakers should re-examine the power of unions within state government and determine whether closed-door collective bargaining rules undermine service to the public. Lawmakers should also consider lifting the ban on private ferry service on Puget Sound, in place since 1951, so travelers would have choices the next time the state ferries are forced to shut down.