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Alaska ferry service to Bellingham will resume after three-year deal ends strike

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.

Ferry travel between Bellingham and Alaska will resume in the coming days with the ending of a labor strike that began July 24.

Exactly when was still being determined Friday as striking employees returned to work.

Shorter day and shuttle routes could begin as soon as Saturday, Aug. 3, but it was unclear as of Friday, Aug. 2, when the Columbia and Kennicott will resume the longer routes between Bellingham and Alaska.

Nearly 600 passengers were unable to sail out of Bellingham during the strike.

Bellingham is the southern stopping point for the Alaska Marine Highway System, which covers 3,500 miles of coastline from Washington state up to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.

The stop at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal is also the only stop in Washington state. The Port of Bellingham operates the terminal.

“The Port is thrilled to have the Alaska Ferry back in service for the many residents, tourists and business owners who rely on this important connection between Washington and Alaska,” Mike Hogan, spokesman for the Port, said to The Bellingham Herald.

“Port staff has been working diligently with impacted passengers to find alternative traveling solutions,” Hogan said, “but taking the Alaska Ferry north out of Bellingham remains a bucket-list type adventure for many travelers.”

The Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific and the state of Alaska reached a tentative agreement late Thursday night for a three-year contract, according to a news release from the state Department of Administration.

Both sides were pleased with the agreement, which was reached with the help of a federal mediator, Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka said during a teleconference on Friday.

“It’s good for employees and it’s good for Alaska, and that’s what really matters,” Tshibaka said.

Ferry workers last went on strike in 1977, according to the Associated Press.

The strike affected thousands of passengers.

As of Thursday afternoon, the state had refunded over $3.2 million in fares for 8,300 passengers and 2,300 vehicles, according to John MacKinnon, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation.

“That loss of revenue will impact our ability to operate in the future,” MacKinnon said.

He also spoke about indirect costs moving forward, referring to passengers who may not have confidence when they book tickets.

“That’s the kind of collateral damage that a strike like this can cost,” MacKinnon said.

Union members still must ratify the contract, which is expected to happen no later than Monday, Aug. 5, commissioners said.

The last official contract ended in 2017, and workers had been operating under a series of interim agreements since then.

“This new agreement addresses many of our members’ concerns,” said Marina Secchitano, IBU president and chief negotiator, in a news release.

“We are very pleased with our new tentative agreement and we appreciate the efforts of the state’s bargaining team in helping to bridge our differences to reach a fair resolution,” Secchitano said.

Contract details will be released once union members have ratified it.

The strike occurred during the peak ferry season, particularly for the route out of Bellingham.

Its impact here isn’t known yet.

“While we don’t have a specific estimate of the strike’s impact on the Port of Bellingham, each year the Bellingham connection stimulates $4.2 million in business revenue from firms supplying services and support to the Alaska Marine Highway System,” Hogan said to The Bellingham Herald in an email.

In August the ferry is scheduled to dock in Bellingham each Friday and two Saturdays, according to the Alaska Marine Highway System

As for the passengers, a total of 575 were unable to sail out of Bellingham during the strike, according to Hogan.

An average of 20,000 passengers travel between Bellingham and Alaska via this ferry connection each year, according to the Port of Bellingham.

“I hope everyone understands that we can’t just flip a switch and get the ships running,” MacKinnon said. “We’re working as expeditiously as possible.”

Learn more

Travels affected by the strike? Call 1-800-642-0066 to ask about your refund.

It may take time to connect with a customer service representative because of the high number of calls, Alaska Marine Highway System officials said.

Details: dot.alaska.gov/amhs

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.
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