PORT TOWNSEND, Wa. - The ferry boat, Chetzamoka, pitched and rolled on its 8 AM run from here to Coupeville, April 2, crossing Admiralty Inlet through seas so rough that passengers were clinging to the rails to stay on their feet.
I offered thanks to the captain, a member of the Masters, Mates and Pilots, AFL-CIO; the crew, members of the Inland Boatmen's Union; and the builders of the ferry, members of the International Association of Machinists - all highly trained in their respective trades.
The vessel, a spanking new 64-car ferry, is named for a chief of the Clallam tribe who befriended the white settlers when they arrived on the Olympic Peninsula in the 1850s. It is one of three ferry boats scheduled to be built at Todd Shipyard in Seattle at a combined cost of $213 million to replace aging ferries in the Washington State Ferry System, an upgrade slowed to a snails pace by the twin economic and budget crisis.
We were on our way to the Canadian border for a labor solidarity rally jointly sponsored by the British Columbia Federation of Labor, the Washington State Labor Council, and the Oregon AFL-CIO. The rally was at Peace Arch State Park. In the crowd of 2,000 union members were many union-proud ferry workers.
The ferry system in this state is a beloved mode of travel, a throwback to simpler times, renowned for safe, reliable service. The ferries sail through some of the most magnificent scenery on earth: Mount Rainier shimmering ghostly white on the horizon, the snowcapped peaks of the Cascades and the Olympics, the cold, open waters of Puget Sound abounding in sea birds and if you're lucky, harbor seals, dolphins, and an Orca or two.
Yet the corporate media and right-wing politicians rave that the ferry workers' union contracts are over-generous, the workers themselves "greedy" and "lazy."
King TV aired a series titled "Waste on the Water" that featured an item in the union contract providing a mileage allowance for a handful of workers who travel long distances to substitutes for workers who call in sick. The item was used to scapegoat the entire workforce as a major cause of the state's $5.1 billion deficit.
State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island, a Democrat, has even introduced a bill to strip the ferry workers of their collective bargaining rights.
Betsy Carroll, a retired ferry worker from Anacortes, Wa., a member of the Masters, Mates, and Pilots was in the crowd at the Peace Arch labor rally holding a placard that read, "What's disgusting? Unionbusting." On the other side it said, "Recall Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen."
"There is a unified effort to keep people from earning a living wage," Carroll said. "They blew out of proportion the wages of a few ferry workers. Management never proposed to get rid of that mileage allowance. The workers have already agreed to wage cuts, pension cuts, higher co-pays for health care. Sen. Haugen is doing the same thing to ferry workers as Scott Walker did to Wisconsin public employees."
Peter Hart, a member of the International Executive Board of the Inland Boatmen's Union, a veteran 12-year ferry deck hand noted, "The ferry system is a really critical part of our state transportation system. In fact, Article 20 of the Washington State Constitution declares the ferry system as part of the state highway system. Yet funding for the ferries has been in jeopardy now for over 10 years."
Hart charged that I-695, brainchild of the right-wing ballot initiative hustler, Tim Eyman, strips funds from maintenance and construction of highways much of it for the ferries. The Washington State Ferry System has lost an estimated $1.2 billion in funding since I-695 was passed in 1999.
He pointed out that the actual budget for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has increased 60 percent in the past 10 years.
"If there is more money now for the highways why isn't there more money for the maintenance, operation, and replacement of aging ferries," asked Hart. "We feel there is a conscious effort to underfund it. At this point, it is becoming irresponsible. They are trying to maintain vessels that are past their shelf life. It costs more to keep aging ferries safe and in running order than to replace them with new ones."
Hart voiced pride in the Washington State Ferry System and its workers. "The WSF has one of the best safety records of any ferry system in the nation or the world," he said. "Without these ferries, the entire economy on the west side of the Sound would be jeopardized. The state government's default remedy for every budget shortfall is to raise fares and cut service. Now they are asking the employees who move 23 million passengers every year across the water to sacrifice more and more."
He blasted Sen. Haugen's bill. "It would strip away the collective bargaining rights of every ferry crew member from the pilot house to the engine room," he said. "This threatens the union rights of all 1,600 ferry workers. It is the same as what happened to the Wisconsin State workers. We can't let it happen here."
Photo: Tim Wheeler/PW.