Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 6 (Final)

The ferry strike which inspired the beginning of this series ended in early August. You can read about the end of the strike here and here.

I recall reading in a newspaper article in Ketchikan (which is paywalled) that a union member mentioned that the union had learned to take any statements made by the state negotiators with a grain of salt. At the time, I nodded my head and thought ‘yep, the state PR people are saying they are doing a lot to help the stranded passengers, but aside from the captain and officers of the M/V Columbia, all the state is doing is refunding tickets’.

I know that I do not understand all of the finer points of demands / contract provisions, so I will not discuss those.

Throughout my trip in Alaska, I kept on hearing about the major budget cuts to the ferry system, and how there will be less of a ferry system in Alaska next year than this year. ‘It’s a good thing you’re taking the ferry to Dutch Harbor this year’ I would hear people say ‘because who knows if that ferry route will exist next year’.

I know that the looming budget cuts had a bad effect on the morale of the ferry workers – I could feel it on the ships (the workers were professional about it, and some of them deliberately tried to avoid expressing too much, but one could feel the elephant in the room). Heck, how could it not have a bad effect on morale?

I’ve read that, though the contract-related grievances were sufficient to prompt the strike, an additional factor which encouraged the workers to vote for a strike was the fear inspired by the threat of budget cuts to the ferry system. It was their way of protesting the deep cuts.

As soon as the strike was called, passengers were talking about how it was a bad move on the part of the ferry workers, that they were attacking the ferry system when it was already very vulnerable and the strike might speed up the demise of the ferry system. The strike, they said, was just playing into the hands of Governor Dunleavy and everyone else who wants to destroy the ferry system. Apparently, some of the pro-ferry legislators also thought the strike might ruin the chances of salvaging the ferry system.

Like I said, I don’t understand the details of the contracts, but I recall reading in that article in Ketchikan (which is paywalled, so I can’t re-check it) that the last offer made to the union before the strike was terrible, worse than previous offers from the state, and the article implied that state officials may have designed it to deliberately offend the union so that they would strike. But perhaps I am not remembering correctly, or I misunderstood the intent behind what was written in the article.

Though I am not as familiar with the situation as many of the other ferry passengers or Alaska state legislators who represent ferry-dependent communities, I’m not sure the union had much to lose politically by going on strike. The people, such as Dunleavy, who want to destroy the ferry system wanted to destroy it even before the strike happened. If Dunleavy, Arduin, and people in their circle could be persuaded by reasoned discussion, they would have already been persuaded. Though some ferry supporters in Ketchikan were very angry about the strike, they were angry because Ketchikan needs ferry service, and they are still going to support funding for ferry service regardless of what they think about the ferry workers union.

What the ferry workers did is they gave a preview of what life in Alaska would be like without the state ferries. Did the reality of Alaska without ferries for ten days change anybody’s mind, specifically the minds of any Alaska state legislators or constituents of legislators who are on the fence? I don’t know. What I do know is that Dunleavy struck out an additional five million dollars of funding for the ferry system with a line-item veto. I’m sure he would have done this even if the ferry workers had not gone on strike.

As I have suggested in this blog post, the defunding of the ferry system may ultimately be a symptom of the contraction of Alaska’s economy due to reduced oil revenues. Ironically, the ferry system serves regions of Alaska which are less economically dependent on oil, yet the residents of those regions of Alaska at the very least receive the PFD, and thus have an economic tie to oil revenues.

Alaska is in some ways a microcosm of politics in the United States at large. Many people say that Dunleavy is Alaska’s own Trump. People speak of ‘crazy liberals’ in coastal communities, especially the very hilly port city of Juneau known in Alaska for its intense political debates (heck, Juneau is sometimes referred to as ‘the San Francisco of Alaska’ though it seems that the right-wingers in Alaska actually don’t care about San Francisco, their anger is too focused on Juneau). People speak of ‘bible-thumpers’ and ‘valley trash’ in the Mat-Su Valley, which was the political stronghold of Sarah Palin and is now the political stronghold of Governor Dunleavy (left-wingers in Alaska don’t seem to care about the ‘Bible Belt’ in the 48 states or anywhere in the 48 states with a reputation of supporting right-wing politics, they are too focused on the Mat-Su Valley and Anchorage). Though Alaska politics are American politics, there is a remove, both in the sense that Alaskans generally are more interested in state politics than national politics, and in the sense than most Americans outside of Alaska don’t really care about Alaskan politics. That remove makes it easier for me to observe some things than if it were about, for example, California politics.

This story is far from over, but I left Alaska more than a month ago, and am not nearly as impacted as the people of Alaska. Thus I will end this blog post series here.

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