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Ferry Workers Seek Fairness in Contract Negotiations With Skagit County

Submitted by Richard Walker, union steward, on behalf of Guemes Island Ferry Workers, a bargaining unit of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific. 

Representatives of Guemes Island Ferry Workers and Skagit County met with a state-appointed mediator on June 14 in an attempt to resolve the impasse over a new contract for the ferry’s masters and purser-deckhands. The ferry workers’ most recent contract expired Dec. 31, 2021.

The County, through its lead negotiator, Robert Braun of Braun Consulting Group in Woodinville, is offering ferry workers a retroactive wage adjustment for 2022, followed by 2% wage increases for 2023 and 2024, although other departments, including unrepresented workers, received a first-year wage adjustment and subsequent 3% increases. Ferry workers’ wages do not come from fares, but from other County revenues.

Wages Falling Further Behind

The current wage range for a purser-deckhand is $21.38 to $27.20 per hour. The starting wage has increased only $2.95 in 14 years. By comparison, the hourly wage range for purser-deckhands on the Lummi Island Ferry is $22.54 to $34.64.

Wages for Guemes Island Ferry Workers have not kept pace with the cost of living.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain deckhands, and those we do recruit live farther away where housing is more affordable,” said Capt. Guy Mitchell, a member of the Guemes Island Ferry Workers contract negotiation team. “One consequence of that is it takes longer for us to respond to after-hours calls, something that sincerely concerns us as maritime professionals.”

The ferry transports emergency vehicles to and from Guemes Island after hours. 911 Dispatch calls Capt. Rachel Rowe, the ferry division manager, who calls the crew starting with most senior, until she has a captain and two deckhands to crew the vessel. Because it can’t be known how long an after-hours emergency response will take, responding crew members are paid for 3 hours at time and a half.

Ferry workers were formerly required to live within 20 minutes of the ferry. Ferry workers sought an increase in pay for callouts to help defray the increasing cost of living, but the County instead eliminated the 20-minute rule.

Early in the negotiations for the 2022-24 contract, the County’s lead negotiator made an unsolicited offer to increase the callout rate to 4 hours at time and a half, but then withdrew it without explanation.

Local Housing Not Affordable

Some crew members live in Coupeville, Oak Harbor, and Mount Vernon. The median rent in Anacortes in 2017-20 was $1,360, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. A worker earning a starting hourly wage at the ferry could, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standards, afford monthly rent of $1,111 at the time. Housing costs have increased since 2017-20 while wages have remained stagnant. Wages are frozen at 2021 levels. The cost of living is not.

Not paying a livable wage is costly to the County. In 2021-22, six deckhands left within a year of training, five for better-paying jobs. Wages paid while training for 40 hours as a deckhand and 40 hours as a purser: $1,710 each based on hourly wages at the time, a total of $10,260.

Union Negotiates for Fair Wages

Ferry crew members are represented by the Inlandboatmen’s Union, or IBU, Puget Sound Region. The ferry is owned by Skagit County and operated by the Public Works Department Ferry Division. The County’s contract negotiators are Braun and representatives of the Human Resources Department.

The County’s lead negotiator, Robert Braun — who, according to documents received by the union via a public records request has been paid $500,000 over the last 10 years to negotiate the County’s union contracts — has resorted to various tactics to wear down union workers, union negotiators said. 

Capt. Guy Mitchell, a member of the Guemes Island Ferry Workers negotiation team, said Braun has, in past negotiations, threatened to withhold retroactive pay if workers didn’t approve the County’s offer; failed to show up at scheduled negotiation sessions; and sought mediation instead of negotiation.

Unfair Labor Practices Complaint Hearing Scheduled

Guemes Island Ferry Workers’ most recent three-year contract ended Dec. 31, 2019 and was extended by memorandum of agreement to Dec. 31, 2021. The IBU reached out to the County in October 2021 to initiate negotiations for a contract for Jan. 1, 2022-Dec. 31, 2024.

Ferry workers rejected the County’s contract offer and presented a counteroffer. Braun then proposed mediation, which ferry workers unanimously rejected, preferring negotiation over mediation. Ferry workers conducted a series of informational pickets March 11 and March 13-17. Braun notified the IBU on March 21 that the County considered both sides to be at an impasse. This declaration, and the County’s failure to respond to the workers’ counterproposal, set up the need for state mediation.

Meanwhile, the ferry manager changed the way she schedules shifts. The unilateral change was disruptive to workers who have older parents and children who need care. It is also an illegal act because the change took place without providing the union an opportunity for bargaining. The Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific filed an Unfair Labor Practices complaint with the state Public Employee Relations Commission, which determined the complaint warranted a hearing and assigned a hearing examiner to the case.

Ferry workers conducted a one-day strike on May 1 to call attention to the contract stalemate and the unfair labor practice. While the ferry did not operate that day, ferry workers stood ready to take emergency responders to and from Guemes Island if needed. Because they were on strike, workers would have done so without pay.

At Least 4,224 Round Trips A Year

The Guemes Island Ferry transports vehicles and passengers between Anacortes and Guemes Island. The ferry makes 4,224 round trips a year between Anacortes and Guemes Island — not including extra runs and after-hours trips for medical emergencies and power outages.

The Guemes Island Ferry has a terminal building with passenger waiting area on the Anacortes side, and a small waiting area and porta-potties on the Guemes Island side. The County provides free long- and short-term parking at two parking lots adjacent to the Anacortes terminal and at one parking lot at the Guemes ferry landing.

As of this writing, the ferry has 19 crew members: one full-time, two part-time masters, and two on-call masters; three full-time, four part-time, and six on-call purser-deckhands; and one full-time mechanic.

Crew members help maintain the vessel and the Anacortes terminal building; undergo regular drills in abandoning ship, anchor operation, firefighting, flooding, and overboard rescue; and receive initial and refresher training in first aid, CPR, and hazardous materials handling and shipment.

Mediation resumes at 9 a.m. Friday, June 23 in the ILWU Hall in Anacortes. The first round, on June 14, concluded after 11 hours of mediated talks between negotiators for the ferry workers and the County. Ferry workers are represented by Peter Hart, Regional Director of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, Capt. Guy Mitchell, and Purser-Deckhand Emily Grober. The County is represented by Robert Braun, labor consultant; Bonnie Beddall, Human Resources Director; Lucas Gonzalez and Jason Lewis of the Human Resources Department; and Fred Haist, Deputy County Prosecutor. 

In the words of Capt. Guy Mitchell, “Guemes Island Ferry Workers provide an essential service. They deserve to be treated fairly and paid a livable wage.”

3 thoughts on “Ferry Workers Seek Fairness in Contract Negotiations With Skagit County

  1. FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
    DATE: July 28, 2023
    HED: County labor consultant fails to produce promised offer
    SUBHED: Guemes Island Ferry Workers in 20th month without contract; wages remain frozen at 2021 levels
    ANACORTES – Skagit County’s labor consultant failed as of noon July 28 to produce a contract offer for Guemes Island Ferry Workers, after assuring the ferry workers’ contract negotiation team that they would have one by July 24.
    Bob Braun of Braun & Associates of Woodinville asked the ferry workers’ contract negotiators for comparative wage data after the July 5 mediation session. The ferry negotiation team supplied the information – including cost of living data and copies of contracts with wage tables for workers at other Western Washington ferry systems. The ferry workers’ negotiation team has supplied the information now more than once since the first contract negotiation session began in October 2021.
    “We’ve completed four days of mediation and we’re waiting on an official resp[onse from the County,” said Peter Hart, regional director, Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific Puget Sound Region, which represents the ferry workers. “I’d like to say we’re cautiously optimistic, but we’ve been at this for over 20 months.”

  2. DATE: Oct. 16, 2023
    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
    Skagit County Commission approves contract with Guemes Island Ferry Workers
    The Skagit County Board of County Commissioners approved on Monday a four-year contract with Guemes Island Ferry Workers.
    Ferry workers had been working without a contract since Jan. 1, 2022 and as a result wages were locked at 2021 levels, although the local cost of living increased 8% in early 2023 alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
    The new contract covers the period from Jan. 1, 2022 to Dec. 31, 2025. Here’s a look at what the contract guarantees.
    2022: a wage increase of 5% retroactive to Jan. 1 that year.
    2023: a wage increase of 3%, retroactive to Jan. 1.
    2024: a wage increase of 2%.
    2025: a wage increase of 4%.
    A return to shift scheduling established by past practices.
    Language that specifies the ferry manager cannot drive the vessel in place of a union captain, unless a union captain is not available.
    On-call and part-time purser-deckhands also receive a wage adjustment of 10.8% in 2023, retroactive to Jan. 1; the masters, or captains, and full-time purser-deckhands will receive a 7% wage adjustment, also retroactive to Jan. 1. The wage adjustment is designed to correct past substandard wage increases. The starting hourly wage for purser-deckhands had increased from $18.43 in 2009 to $21.38 in 2021 – a total of $2.95 an hour – and the wage topped out at $27.20.
    “We thank the County Commission for its vote today,” contract negotiator Guy Mitchell, a ferry captain, said after the commission’s vote. “It was a difficult, lengthy process to get to this point, and we are committed to working with the county to get future contracts approved in a more efficient manner – one that is less costly to the county and the public we serve.”
    Union steward Richard Walker added, “A good contract is good for ferry workers and it’s good for the county. It sets ground rules and makes clear our responsibilities to each other. It helps inform spending decisions and financial planning of 18 human beings on the payroll. It’s an important, legally binding document and we believe our negotiating team and the county can work together on future contracts as partners for progress, and not as adversaries.”
    Peter Hart, Puget Sound regional director of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, thanked members of the community – including state Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes – and members of the IBU and other unions for speaking out in favor of a fair contract and livable wage for Guemes Island Ferry Workers.
    “Your support was invaluable,” Hart said. “Thank you for standing up for economic justice for the Guemes Island Ferry crew and their families. These crew members are dedicated mariners who stand ready to serve in all hours, in all weather, and they ask only for fair and adequate compensation in return.”
    Guemes Island Ferry Workers are represented by the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific. Contract negotiators were Hart, Mitchell and Purser-Deckhand Emily Grober. The county was represented by Bonnie Beddall, human resources director; Fred Haist, deputy prosecuting attorney; and Robert Braun, a labor consultant from Woodinville.
    Hart thanked Grober, Mitchell and Walker for their work on behalf of the crew.
    “It’s never easy to be involved in negotiations for any bargaining unit, big or small, because you’re essentially being asked to worry about the livelihoods of the whole group,” Hart said. “They’re not just co-workers or fellow mariners. They’re living, breathing members of our community and their welfare is our welfare.” 

  3. Dear Editor,

    Guemes Island Ferry Workers, a bargaining unit of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, thanks county commissioners for their unanimous vote approving our Collective Bargaining Agreement for Jan. 1, 2022-Dec. 31, 2025.

    The wage increases will make it easier for our mariners to provide for their families and will make it easier for the ferry system to recruit experienced deckhands and masters, reducing costly turnover. The wage adjustment for 2023 does much to correct past substandard wage increases.

    We appreciate the efforts of Bonnie Beddall, Jason Lewis and the rest of the County negotiation team to reach agreement with us on a contract. However, a statement Mr. Lewis made to the County Commission on Oct. 16 — that Guemes Island Ferry Workers had rejected participation in the county’s wage study – begs correction.

    Ferry workers rejected the County’s first wage offer, and the County crossed out the relevant paragraph in red. But the next paragraph, which referred to the wage study, got crossed out too.

    I believe the crossing out of the second graph was inadvertent. It’s also unfortunate that Union negotiators didn’t catch it, because it was the start of a chain of miscommunication and misunderstanding that delayed agreement on a contract.

    The record shows that ferry workers expected to participate and be included in the wage study. You may recall that the starting hourly wage for a purser/deckhand had gone up only $2.95 since 2009 and a purser/deckhand who had worked for the County for more than 30 years was being paid $27.20 an hour. Ferry workers believed the wage study was necessary to correct years of wage increases that failed to keep up with the cost of living.

    Ferry workers participated in the wage survey, believing they were being included in the study. Union negotiators noted in contract counter-proposals that wage increases depended on the outcome of the county’s wage study. Ferry workers received emails from the County about the wage study’s progress. Only when wage adjustments were introduced in each of the departments did ferry crew members learn they were not included.

    Good news: Guemes Island Ferry Workers, the IBU and Skagit County Human Resources will soon begin meeting regularly as a Labor Management Committee. We look forward to improving communication between us and the County, and building a relationship of trust that will smooth the path in future contract negotiations.

    It’s an honor to serve you,

    Richard A. Walker
    Union steward
    Guemes Island Ferry Workers, a bargaining unit of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific

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