Troubled ferry

Troubled ferry

Ferry changeover still causing labor pains

By Amanda Witherell

For more than three months, captains, deckhands, and union sympathizers have been protesting on the Embarcadero in front of Alcatraz Cruises’ new operations at Pier 33.

But a few blocks away on Market Street, the battling companies have been wrangling inside the offices of the National Labor Relations Board. In early October, Alcatraz Cruises filed a complaint against the protesters for “visitor harassment.”

“Nobody was getting hurt, but there was behavior that wasn’t necessarily appropriate,” Alcatraz Cruises spokesperson Tegan Firth told the Guardian. She said protesters have used foul language around the tourists and the complaint included a compilation of video footage gathered over several weeks as evidence.

In response, Masters, Mates, and Pilots and the Inland Boatmen’s Union filed their own complaint with the board based on hiring discrimination. “We countered their charges with our own charges of discrimination,” captain Ray Shipway told us. “They interviewed a lot of people, but they didn’t hire them. They hired junior crewmembers over the experienced ones.”

The unions also filed suit earlier in the year and won an injunction from the Department of Labor, forcing Alcatraz Cruises to pay prevailing wages to their crews. The company has appealed that decision.

“It wasn’t clear in the original decision if it applied to this concession contract or all future contracts with the National Park Service,” Firth explained.

She said the other reason was the company would like more flexibility. “The Department of Labor set down the wages and benefits, but we want to explore a wide variety of benefits and offer employee incentives.”

She said some of that might include a cafeteria plan for health care, but as far as incentives were concerned, “I don’t think we have anything specific in mind, but we want to be able to be flexible.”

When asked if part of that flexibility was an opportunity to offer lower wages to employees, she said, “No, it is not. It is partially clarification and partially so all our employees have the best options for total compensation.”

“Terry MacRae, like the owners of Whole Foods and Wal-Mart, is virulently antiunion,” said deckhand Steve Ongerth, criticizing the owner of Alcatraz Cruises. “He made sure he hired only enough crew to train their replacements. He knows what he’s doing. He hired people who weren’t in the union so there wouldn’t have to be a union.”

Union members are concerned this could be the start of an unwelcome trend on San Francisco’s waterfront, which has traditionally been powered by strong unions.

Firth said the company wasn’t ruling out the possibility of seeking future service contracts with the National Park Service or taking ferries to other ports in the bay. “We’re not exploring any actively, but I wouldn’t rule it out in the future,” she said.

“Hornblower [Alcatraz Cruises’ parent company] is one of the fastest-growing businesses on the bay,” she said, “and it obviously didn’t get that way waiting for business to come to it.”

Originally published December 26, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian