Ferry crews reject SSA contract offer
The prospect of a hefty bonus in their Christmas stockings was not enough to convince members of the Steamship Authority's (SSA) largest union to accept a contract a union leader said amounted to an overall pay cut.
After working more than two and a half years without a contract, members of the Marine Engineering Beneficial Association (MEBA), which represents unlicensed vessel employees, unanimously rejected a contract offer from management that included a six percent pay hike along with significant changes to boatline work rules, long-held union perks, and benefits.
The bonus offer of an average of $2,000 per union member one week before Christmas, an offer management said would be taken off the table if the contract was not agreed to by Dec. 16, did not persuade a single MEBA member, according to the vote count provided by the union. The union membership rejected the deal, presented for ratification over the weekend, by a vote of 160-0.
This week, SSA general manager Wayne Lamson expressed disappointment at the union decision. He said he looked forward to hearing from the union about particular issues to which members objected.
In a letter sent to each union member in support of ratification prior to the vote, Mr. Lamson said that SSA employees would continue to be among the highest paid employees in the marine ferry industry, and that the contract reflected management's need to tighten up some costly and wasteful practices and create a more responsive and competitive boatline.
Mr. Lamson's letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, highlighted the proposed benefits and the need for change, but it did little to sway union votes.
On Tuesday, Bill Campbell, SSA MEBA union representative, said that the unanimous vote could be explained by the fact that after almost three years without a pay increase, management asked union members to accept a contract that, when taken as a whole, would amount to a pay cut.
Mr. Campbell said that over the last several years the SSA reduced labor costs by cutting service and negotiating new manning agreements, with his union's cooperation. Those agreements yielded savings of $1.4 million, he said.
"Labor is not the problem," Mr. Campbell told The Times. "Each of the last three years our costs have gone down."
Last June, Mr. Lamson announced that the boatline expected to trim operating costs by $1 million per year as a result of the early retirement of 23 longtime employees who decided to take buyout packages offered by management.
Management also reached an agreement with MEBA that allowed for a reduction in manning on some vessels at different times of the year and for the elimination of cooks on some runs. The cook's job pays approximately $20.75 per hour. Instead, crewmembers will receive $10 per meal, period.
Asked what options management had beyond continually raising fares to keep up with rising costs, Mr. Campbell said that rather than reducing union benefits, management could turn to more fuel-efficient boats and the diligent pursuit of state and federal grants for vessel and terminal construction costs.
Mr. Campbell said he remained optimistic about the prospects for an agreement but declined to provide any details about the issues over which the union and management remain at odds. He said he did not want to negotiate in the press.
SSA members, scheduled to meet this morning in Woods Hole, were reluctant to comment on the details of the contract or its rejection by the union membership. "It is inappropriate to comment at this time," said Falmouth SSA member Bob Marshall, who assumes the chairmanship next month.
Marc Hanover, the Vineyard SSA member and outgoing chairman, was equally circumspect. "It is unfortunate the contract was not ratified and it is still in negotiations," he said.
SSA management and union representatives are scheduled to resume meeting with a federal mediator on Tuesday.
Good place to work
In his letter to union members, Mr. Lamson, who was named general manager last year, said that despite great strides the inability to conclude negotiations and sign a new collective bargaining agreement was one of the major disappointments of his first year at the helm of the boatline.
Mr. Lamson said the SSA had successfully concluded agreements with three unions other than MEBA, despite 50 meetings since July 2003, including 14 with a federal mediator brought in at MEBA's request.
Mr. Lamson, who began working at the SSA as a summertime ticket seller more than 36 years ago, wrote, "Nothing we are proposing at the bargaining table will change the fact that the Authority is a good place to work, with good paying jobs and great benefits. With our proposed new wage rates, ranging from $18.39 to $23.77 per hour, you will continue to be among the highest paid sailors and marine oilers in the country.
According to an outline of the highlights of the contract proposal, management has asked employees to begin contributing five percent of the cost of premiums on their family health insurance plan, which includes drug, dental and optical benefits.
The contract also seeks to rein in the practice of split pay, end the practice of premium pay, which provides an extra $8 payment for employees who perform duties outside their specific assignments. The rejected contract proposal would not have allowed employees to watch television during any time for which they are paid, as has been the case.
Under the system of split pay, when a crewmember is unable to work a shift but the vessel is still able to operate because it meets Coast Guard manning requirements, the members of that crew split the missing employee's pay for that shift.
The SSA has agreed to continue the practice but only when it does not fill a vacancy after being notified by at least 3 pm the previous day that an employee will be missing and needs to be replaced.
Addressing some of the more contentious contract issues, Mr. Lamson wrote to the workers, "Most public employees in Massachusetts pay a share of health insurance costs, usually well above five percent and ranging up to 50 percent in some cases. More flexible work rules, reduction or elimination of premium pay for duties within your regular watch, and more control over 'split pay' are the types of changes that may be difficult and possibly even painful for some of you now, but necessary to move the entire organization in the right direction in the future."
Beginning Jan. 1, the SSA will increase fares across the board to make up a projected $4 million deficit in the 2006 operating budget. Mr. Lamson ended the letter with a reference to the public's expectations.
"These have been tough negotiations, but there is no question that reasonable savings can be achieved, excessive costs eliminated, and a better, tighter, more responsive and more competitive Steamship Authority can be created. Our public certainly knows this, and it is time for all of us to deliver what the public wants and deserves."
Long running story
In the past, SSA unions could often call on individual authority board members for support. Over the years, it was not uncommon for board members to undercut management during negotiations with the boatline's own unions, allowing a number of practices now considered wasteful to flourish.
The current board has remained solidly behind management. Flint Ranney, a prominent Nantucket realtor, Mr. Hanover, owner of Linda Jean's restaurant in Oak Bluffs, who together represent 70 percent of the board vote, and Mr. Marshall, a retired businessman, have operated over then past year with a cohesiveness and strong attention to the bottom line that was not always evident in past years. That, and a willingness to back management provided a bedrock of support for Mr. Lamson in what he described as difficult negotiations.
The union, which is barred by law from a strike, has turned to the State House for support. Last spring, two bills targeting the SSA suddenly appeared among the hundreds of bills filed that session. Both are still lingering but given little likelihood of survival
Senate bill 1580, filed on March 22 by Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a legislator known for his unequivocal support of unions, would amend the SSA's enabling legislation by inserting language that declares that the SSA and union representatives must engage in binding arbitration when both sides are engaged in an impasse of more than 30 days in a dispute over wages, hours, and conditions of employment.
Senator Pacheco, a Democrat from Taunton, is the author of a 1993 union-backed law that requires the state to prove cost savings before contracting with private companies to provide services otherwise provided by state employees.
Senate bill 1853, filed days later by Senator Stephen Baddour, chairman of the joint committee on transportation, who knew little about it, seeks to reduce the 35 percent weighted vote now wielded by the Nantucket and Vineyard members by giving each island member only a 20 percent vote, for a total of 40 percent, eliminating the islands' majority control of the boatline.
The Barnstable, Falmouth, and New Bedford members would have each continued to hold a ten percent vote as they do now. The two new members, a Governor's appointee and the Secretary of the Executive Office of Transportation, who would serve as chairman, would each have a 15 percent weighted vote.