When the critical public ferries operated by Alaska’s Marine Highway System (AMHS) came under attack this year, the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU) – the ILWU’s Marine Division – mobilized with community residents to fight back.
The crisis came in mid-February when Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy announced plans to slash ferry funding by 75% – betraying his campaign promise to protect the ferry system.
The Marine Highway System was established in 1964 and now serves 32 communities, including 28 with little or no highway service. Cuts would leave residents stranded when they need to see doctors, attend school, visit family or go shopping for groceries or supplies. Airplane flights are expensive and can’t deliver the reliable, affordable service that ferries offer citizens and businesses – including commercial fishermen who depend on the vessels to ship their perishable products.
The AMHS carries 350,000 passengers each year, plus another 100,000 vehicles. Local residents are the main customers, outnumbering tourists more than 2-to-1. With over 200,000 Alaska residents depending on the 11 vessels operated by the Marine Highway System, the IBU began a grassroots community campaign that they call: “Save Our State” – S.O.S.”
Keeping Alaska connected
“We keep Alaska connected,” says IBU Alaska Regional Director Trina Arnold, echoing words that have become a theme for the campaign.
“Public ferries are the lifeline for dozens of communities – and the people of those communities are getting involved and speaking out to save the system.”
How did such a vital public service become so threatened? The answer begins with Governor Mike Dunleavy, who promised during his campaign to protect the Marine Highway System. Now, he has proposed spending $250,000 on an “economic reshaping consultant” who will consider 10 of the Governor’s “ideas,” that include giving the public ferries away to a private operator, raising fares, cutting services, and renegotiating union contracts to pay workers less.
Slippery mix of oil and politics
The Governor’s extreme ideas are shaped by a slippery mix of oil and politics that began decades ago. Alaska was blessed with abundant oil and gas deposits that surpassed mining and timber revenues by the late 1960s. When massive oilfields on the North Slope were connected by the trans-Alaska pipeline in the 1970’s – production skyrocketed, along with state revenues, because lawmakers in 1959 wisely decided to tax every barrel that came out of the ground. Oil revenues became so high that Alaska was able to substitute oil taxes for state sales or income taxes that most states use.
Annual oil checks
In 1976, politicians took another step that linked the state’s fate to oil by creating the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD). The Fund was created to heal political wounds from the trans-Alaska pipeline battle – and create a kind of state savings account for future investments that would be there when oil revenues declined. Politicians soon demanded the Fund to write checks for every Alaska resident, sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars per check. The arrangement made politicians look good, the money seemed free, and it solidified public support behind the oil industry.
Everything seemed fine until the inevitable happened and oil production declined. Alaska oil peaked in 1988 when 2 million barrels came out of the ground and now it’s dropped by two-thirds, which has collapsed tax revenue.
Governor’s solution: deep cuts
The state budget that depends so heavily on oil revenue now faces a fiscal crisis. Despite the new reality, Governor Dunleavy campaigned on increasing the PFD checks. The Governor also brought on a hired gun, Donna Arduin, to direct his Office of Management and Budget (OMB). She has a history of consulting on other state budgets, including Florida’s where she was accused of “cherry-picking” facts, creative mathematics and flawed methodologies – tactics that appear designed to further an anti-tax and privatization of government services agenda.
A convenient crisis
Alaska’s “budget crisis” is serving as a convenient excuse to justify giving public services to private, corporate operators who stand to make a profit. It also provides a way to eliminate public transportation to vulnerable communities.
When legislators asked non-partisan economists at the University of Alaska for budget analysis, they were told that the Governor’s cuts could destroy 14,000-17,000 full-time jobs.
Save the System
“Saving the Marine Highway System is crucial, not only to save the livelihoods of our 400 members but to save the public transportation system for so many Alaskans,” says IBU President Marina Secchitano. “We are using all our resources to save our system including the ILWU Organizing Department, and IBU members up and down the coast. This is where being a National Union demonstrates our strength – it’s essential for all of us to pitch-in for campaigns like this.”
Organizing the campaign
The IBU’s “S-O-S” campaign is being directed by Alaska Regional Director Trina Arnold, with the complete engagement of the Executive Committee and membership.
“It’s been non-stop for us, but there’s so much at stake for hundreds of IBU members – and hundreds of thousands of Alaska residents in those remote communities,” said Arnold during a break while visiting legislators in the State Capitol.
“We’re trying to get everyone involved and stay coordinated,” noting that they are working with a state grassroots labor/community alliance, and recently attended a meeting with other unions hosted by the Juneau Labor Council and State AFL-CIO.
Focus on legislators
The S-O-S campaign effort went public when state legislators held budget hearings in early March to consider the Governor’s proposed cuts. “Legislators are eager to hear what we have to say. They are looking for solutions, and we have many ideas for them to consider” says Arnold. “This is not a sprint, but more like a marathon and we are gearing up for it.”
The S-O-S campaign’s first major mobilization happened on Friday, March 8, when coordinated actions took place in Bellingham, Ketchikan, and Juneau. Turnout was impressive, with support from elected officials, business owners and other unions who joined with IBU and ILWU members.
Bellingham’s Port Commission
passed a strongly-worded resolution emphasizing how the Alaska Marine Highway’s southern terminal has benefitted the local economy – boosting small businesses and creating dozens of good-paying jobs.
Positive media coverage
The actions in Ketchikan and Juneau were designed to raise awareness about the Governor’s threats to destroy the Marine Highway. Clever signs carried by activists on busy street corners helped gain positive media coverage that alerted the broader public.
Attending budget hearings
Trina Arnold says the S-O-S campaign aims to mobilize community leaders and union members, then connect them with legislators who will decide how to handle the Governor’s budget cuts. Legislative committee hearings are now filled with concerned citizens and union members.
Because the first round of public budget hearings attracted large numbers of concerned citizens and growing anxiety among legislators – including those in his own party – the Governor sought help from the extremist, Koch- funded group, “Americans for Prosperity.”
They cooked up a “road show” with closed-door meetings featuring the Governor and his hand-picked panel of supporters to justify the controversial budget cuts – including the destruction of the Marine Highway. Inside the meetings, only pre-screened and reserved guests can attend, and they aren’t allowed to ask questions – only submit comments on hand-picked cards.
Alaska’s AFL-CIO and local labor councils are organizing protests outside the Governor’s “road shows,” including events in Anchorage, Wasilla, and Fairbanks.
Presence at the Capitol
The S-O-S campaign is focusing on the State Capitol where they held a noontime BBQ on March 20th that drew hundreds of activists and got positive media attention. The following day, S-O-S mobilized a record number of people – over 600 – for a Transportation Subcommittee meeting where testimony lasted more than a week.
As The Dispatcher was going to press, the IBU was gearing-up for a Community Lobby Day on March 28, hoping to draw representatives from many of the 32 communities that depend on the Marine Highway – so they can talk with legislators and staff.
Wild card of privatization
Besides stopping the budget cuts, the IBU has to head-off a “public corporation” scheme being encouraged by the Southeast Conference, a body created decades ago to establish the Marine Highway that has recently lobbied for privatization via a “public corporation” model that would use state funding.
“It comes down to just another way of packaging privatization,” says Marina Secchitano. “The best way to protect Alaska’s communities is to keep the Marine Highway public and make sure it’s fairly-funded – which sounds simple, but requires the fight of our lives to achieve.”