Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 1

When I was ready to leave Alaska, it seems that Alaska was not ready to let me go. I ended up being stuck in Alaska longer than I planned because of Alaska’s political crisis. I’m now back in San Francisco, though I am still working through some of the aftermath.

I boarded a ferry in Sitka, Alaska on July 23. I was supposed to take that ferry all the way to Bellingham, Washington. However, on July 24, at 2pm, when the ferry was docked in Ketchikan, Alaska, one of the three unions which represents the ferry workers went on strike.

The notice says "We are very sorry for any inconvienence but due to an impasse in negotiations between the state of Alaska and the Inland Boatmens Union we are directed by our union to leave the vessel at this time. Chief Purser'. A passenger wrote 'You awful union people!!!' and another passenger wrote 'NO - AWFUL GOVERNOR!'

This notice was left at the purser’s counter on the ship, with comments by passengers.

This blindsided practically all of the passengers on board, including me, since when we first docked in Ketchikan (at around 12:15 pm), all of the announcements indicated that the ferry was going to leave on schedule (at 3 pm). At first, we could hardly believe the strike was real, and then when we could see all of the crew members getting off the boat, we told ourselves that since the officers (including captain) and the engineers were staying on the boat, we would still depart. Maybe there would be no food or cleaning service, but surely we were still going to Bellingham, right?

The captain announced over the PA system that anyone who wanted more information to go to the cafeteria aboard the ship, and he would host a meeting. I went there. The captain explained that some of the crew members who were on strike were essential to the operation of the ship and they could not leave dock without them. The captain had been aware that there was trouble brewing between the IBU (the union on strike) and the State of Alaska, but he had not known that the strike was going to happen on this particular day until it happened. He said that though his union was not on strike (hence why he was still on the boat), his union respected the IBU’s right to strike. He was very hesitant to offer his own opinion of the strike (a wise move), but it was clear that he was committed to doing as much as possible for us stranded passengers. He gave us as much information as he could (unfortunately, he did not have enough information himself), and he tried his best to get more information for us. The passengers asked him hundreds of questions, and he answered every one, even if the answer was ‘I don’t know’. He made himself available to anyone who wanted to talk to him. He also made many phone calls trying to get answers, and he distributed a list of phone numbers for passengers so we could make alternative transportation arrangements, try to get financial compensation, and give the Alaska government and the union a piece of our minds (he strongly encouraged us to share our opinions with the government and the union’s leadership). I believe the captain was doing everything in his power to help us

There was a second meeting that evening, and a final meeting the next morning.

The captain speaks with passengers in the cafeteria (I have blacked out passengers’ faces to protect their identities).

It turned out that we would be allowed to stay on the ferry for one more night, but we were required to leave the ferry by noon on July 25 (it took hours for this information to get around). The crew members who were not on strike were forbidden by their own unions from crossing picket lines (out of respect for the union on strike) which meant they were not allowed to offer physical assistance to passengers getting off of the boat. A group of able-bodied passengers volunteered to help passengers with mobility impairments to leave the boat. I don’t necessarily understand how labor unions operate (even though I’ve been a union member in the past), but refusing to help passengers who are being forced off of the boat who need help to get off the boat is going too far (I don’t blame the crew members on board – I think they would have been eager to help if they were not afraid of getting in trouble with their union – I blame whoever made the rules which said that they were not allowed to help people with mobility impairments who were being forced to leave to physically leave).

An extra perk was that everyone was allowed to sleep in a cabin if they wished, even if we did not have cabin reservations. That is how I ended up sleeping in a private cabin on a ferry for the first time. Of course, the crew members who cleaned the cabins and made the beds were gone. The second mate (who is third in command, after the captain and first mate) offered to get sheets and pillows and make the bed for me. I told him it was unnecessary since I can make the bed myself, but as I was moving my luggage into the cabin, I found that he had prepared the bed for me. I think he felt bad about the whole situation, and was trying to do anything he could to make things better for the passengers, even if all he could do was make a bed.

Ketchikan is on Revillagigedo Island. It is impossible to leave Revillagigedo Island by land. It is only possible to leave by boat or by airplane. I know one stranded passenger who was bound for Metlakatla (a town on a nearby island which is served by the ferry system) arranged for a charter boat to get her to her destination, but getting charter boats was not a practical option for those of us who were bound for Washington state. That meant that there was only one way for us to leave Ketchikan – by air.

Yes, I flew from Ketchikan Airport to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It’s the first time I’ve been in the air since 2014. I’ve said all along that I would consider air travel in an urgent situation, and I think being stuck in a place I never intended to stay (Ketchikan) while being unable to return home by any other means (at least until the strike is over, which could take weeks) counts as an urgent situation. At least I got to do all of the other legs of my travel in Alaska by surface transportation, including the northbound route into Alaska, so I managed to get the sense of how big the distances are in Alaska. Once I was in Seattle, I continued to travel the rest of the way back to San Francisco by ground transportation, even though it would have been cheaper to just transfer to a SFO-bound flight.

The airplane was packed, not a single seat was empty. I think that was probably true of every flight from Ketchikan to Seattle-Tacoma on July 25 and 26 because there were so many stranded ferry passengers.

I was one of the lucky passengers: I did not have a vehicle, cargo which could not be transported by air, a pet, or a medical condition which made flying risky. I did have to ditch one item (stove fuel) in Ketchikan which could not be transported by air, but that was not a big deal.

Many other passengers were in a much worse position than me. The only way to take vehicles and other large cargo out of Ketchikan besides the ferries are the barges, which are mostly full and did not have enough space for all of the stranded passengers’ vehicles/goods. Also, the barges do not accept passengers, so even the passengers who were able to secure space on a barge for their vehicles/goods still had to fly out. The barge is much, much slower than the ferries, and customers cannot check that the barge crew are taking proper care of their vehicles/goods. A few passengers had perishable goods which cannot last through the barge voyage – I don’t know what they did, but my guess is that they probably gave away all of their perishables in Ketchikan. I know that one passenger had a rental motorbike, which not only do they now have to rent for an extra week while it comes down by barge to Seattle, they are also concerned that it will be damaged en route and they will have to pay the rental company for the damage. Some passengers were moving out of Alaska with all of their material possessions, and they need to be in the 48 states at a certain time to start their new jobs/lives. Based on what I heard from the passengers who avoid flying due to medical reasons, it seems they decided to risk their health by flying anyway since Ketchikan does not have adequate medical services for them (many of them were on the ferry in order to access medical care in Washington state), and that whether they waited in Ketchikan for weeks or took a two-hour flight their health was at risk either way, so they decided to gamble on the flight. Also, some passengers were in a financially tight position, and had difficulty putting together funds for a last minute flight (especially since it took a week for the ferry ticket refunds to come through – I literally just got my refund today, a week later). I could go on and on about the various difficult positions stranded passengers have been placed in.

I know of one passenger who is planning to stay in Ketchikan until the ferries are running again, even if it takes weeks. I wish him luck.

The people of Ketchikan also have strong opinions. Since they live on an island, they depend on ferry service, so comments such as ‘how they can do this to us, we need the ferries!’ were very common. Some of the local people directed their outrage at the union, saying it was the union’s fault that their ferry service was cut. Some of the local people directed their outrage at the governor, saying it was his fault that the union felt like they needed to strike.

Some things I heard passengers say (note: I don’t necessarily endorse these views, I’m just trying to describe the atmosphere):

“We’re hostages! The union is using us as hostages!”
“I’m sympathetic to the workers, I know the state of Alaska had treated them badly, but why didn’t they at least let us complete our voyage??!!”
“I’m done with Alaska! F*** Alaska! I was thinking I would come back, but not after this. It’s Trumplandia! They elected a thief to be their governor! They don’t want to pay taxes, so they will cut off their noses to spite their faces!”
“If the ferry workers don’t like the working conditions, they should just quit. If they can’t get jobs in Alaska, they can come to Texas, we have lots of jobs.”
“Did you look at what the union is demanding? It’s ridiculous!”
“I agree with the union, but the timing of the strike is bad. The ferry system is already in trouble, this could be the nail in the coffin which destroys the ferry system forever.”
“Wow, this has not happened since 1977. This is historic. We’re in Alaska history.”

I read an article in the Ketchikan Daily News (which is completely paywalled) in which someone in the union said that they have learned that anything the State of Alaska says needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I am not in a position to judge the comments the State of Alaska has made about the negotiations with the union, but as a passenger, I can tell you that some of the PR put out by the State of Alaska is misleading. In the many news articles about the ferry strike, the State of Alaska claims that they are doing all they can to assist stranded passengers to get to their destinations. I call bullshit. It is true that we are getting refunds – a week late, which is too late for paying for airfare/accommodation/etc. as we were stranded, and it is true that the captain and other deck officers did all they could to assist us. But aside from the captain and other deck officers, the State of Alaska has been completely unhelpful. I did not contact the Alaska Department of Transportation myself, but some passengers did, and they reported that it was a waste of time, and they certainly did not offer any assistance. Thus, I do not trust the claims that the State of Alaska is making about the union.

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders have all commented on the ferry worker strike.

Though this strike is what has had the greatest impact on my own life, this is just a small segment of Alaska’s political crisis. I am not an Alaska resident, and I certainly will not bear the impact of Alaska’s political crisis to nearly the same extent as the people of Alaska. But since Alaska politics has interfered with my life, I am now inspired to write blog posts about Alaska politics.

In the next post, I will go back in time and start tracing, if not the roots, then at least the trunk of the political crisis.

To be continued…

2 thoughts on “Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 2 | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. Pingback: Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 6 (Final) | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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