Alaska ferry strike talks drag on. Here’s what the stoppage could mean for Bellingham

Alaska ferry system brings passengers to Bellingham

The southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System is in Bellingham, Wash. Alaska ferries allow for walk-on and vehicle passengers.
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The southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System is in Bellingham, Wash. Alaska ferries allow for walk-on and vehicle passengers.

As Alaska state ferries remain docked because of a strike, it’s still a wait-and-see situation for communities like Bellingham.

It’s been nearly a week since the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific workers went on strike, idling a system that included regular ferry runs to Alaska from the Bellingham Cruise Terminal. Representatives with the Alaska Department of Administration and union officials met over the weekend with a federal mediator, but it is unclear how those negotiations went, according to a July 29 online article in the Anchorage Daily News.

The newspaper reported that a union member said he’d been placed under a gag order by the mediator not to discuss the negotiations with members of the media.

The strike is happening during the peak ferry season, particularly for the route out of Bellingham. In August the ferry is scheduled to dock in Bellingham each Friday and two Saturdays, according to the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Port of Bellingham staff have been busy assisting impacted passengers, said Mike Hogan, spokesman for the port. That includes helping passengers get refunds, re-book on future sailings and providing travel advice, including helping find barge services out of Seattle.

The port has not reduced staffing levels during the strike, Hogan said, adding that several port tenants are being impacted by the strike. Examples he gave include the StrEAT Food cafe at the cruise terminal, fuel provider Rainier Petroleum and Sanitary Services Co.

Hogan estimates the Bellingham connection creates $4.2 million in business revenue annually. An average of 20,000 passengers travel between Bellingham and Alaska with this ferry connection each year, and the port is “very concerned” about the impacts.

“While the port does not control ferry service or have a role in resolving issues between the Alaska Marine Highway System and the Inlandboatmen’s Union, the port remains hopeful this strike will soon end,” Hogan said in an email.

The strike began on July 24 as union members were seeking a new contract. The last official contract expired in 2017, with the workers operating under a series of interim agreements. According to the Anchorage Daily News, this is the first strike by IBU’s ferry workers since 1977.

The future of the ferry in Bellingham was in doubt earlier this year as the Alaska state government looking at making deep cuts to the budget. Funding was eventually provided for a reduced winter run.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.