One-of-a-kind ferry worker benefit considered wasteful by critics

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on January 19, 2011 at 11:30 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 8:56 AM

OLYMPIA -- As the Legislature struggles to slash from the budget in Olympia, some state leaders say a benefit only available to ferry workers should go.

1,600 ferry employees are the only state workers who have their own special commission to rule on labor disputes. It’s called the Marine Employees' Commission (MEC).  Every other state worker with a labor issue goes to the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC).

It costs the state $235,000 a year to run a separate commission for ferry employees.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a waste of taxpayer dollars when we have huge needs in transportation," said Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, the most powerful transportation lawmaker in Olympia. “I really respect them (ferry employees), but the truth of the matter is they're state employees and they need to be treated like everyone else.”

Last year, Haugen, D-Camano Island, unsuccessfully tried to dismantle the MEC. She said the state's paying twice for the same services.

The Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, of which Haugen is the top senator, asked for a study on the issue. It cost taxpayers $85,000 to pay a consultant to do the work. This month the consultant concluded the PERC could easily handle MEC issues. You can read the study here.

“PERC has the necessary expertise to administer the grievances and hearings currently administered by MEC,” wrote Kathy Scanlan, a consultant with the Cedar River Group.
  
Scanlan also concluded that the MEC grievance arbitration cases she reviewed didn’t require expertise in the maritime industry.

“The decisions were based on legal interpretations and involved matters that did not require specialized maritime knowledge,” wrote Scanlan.

Union representatives tell KING 5 the consultant’s study was flawed and came to erroneous conclusions. They say the PERC and MEC are very different commissions and keeping them separate is the most efficient and fiscally responsible thing to do.

“Anyone who says it’s a duplication of services doesn’t know about the PERC and MEC,” said Mike McCarthy, an attorney representing the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA). “The MEC consists of a great group of public servants who provide a level of service that cannot be replicated by anyone else for the cost. The state is getting a great bang for the buck (from the MEC)."

Why MEC exists

Governor John Spellman formed the MEC in 1983 in response to a three day wildcat strike staged by ferry workers. In exchange for agreeing to never strike again, the state gave the employees their own commission, the MEC, to settle disputes.
 
McCarthy says the state should not go back on their word.

“If they take away the MEC, they’re welching on a deal made in 1983. The MEC is saving Washington taxpayers a lot of money and heartache,” said McCarthy.

“Bottom line, all stakeholders get experienced commissioners at very low cost. Passengers get uninterrupted service. Taxpayers get great value,” said Rob Lavitt, legal counsel for the Inland Boatman’s Union (IBU).

MEC supporters say the commission saves money because the commissioners are incredibly effective at settling disputes before they end up in costly legal battles.

"I think we're much more valuable than anyone thinks we are," said John Swanson, Chairman of the three-member MEC. “PERC’s capable and good, but I think in all candor that we're better dealing with one single entity - state ferries."

Former ferries union negotiator Mike Manning says the unions like the MEC because it tends to rule in favor of the unions, which unfairly costs the state.

"I always felt the close calls always went to the union, no question about it," said Manning.
 
A dispute over handling gas cans is one MEC decision, the state says, unfairly sided with the union. Deck hands belonging to the IBU complained the state should give them "hazard pay" -double time- for picking up small gas cans brought aboard boats by riders. The IBU won that case. The cost to taxpayers?  $350,000.

The MEC ordered the state to pay engine room employees double-time for shift changes, which are called watch turnovers in the marine industry. Watch turnovers typically take between three and five minutes before and after each shift. The time is spent explaining any issues to the oncoming crew.  Despite maritime tradition- that engine room employees across the country aren't paid for those minutes- an appeals court and the MEC ruled the state blew it and needed to pay up. Cost to taxpayers? $2 million.

Union representatives say the state doesn’t like the commission because Washington State Ferries (WSF) managers frequently break labor laws and don’t like suffering the consequences.

“When WSF violates either collective bargaining laws or the labor contracts, they don’t like it when they get called on it. Some in management are critical of the MEC and think it’s biased. That’s not true. They (MEC) call balls and strikes and if managers are committing violations and get called on it, they want to blame the umpire, when they’re the ones who committed the violation,” said Lavitt.

Chairman Swanson stands behind their decisions over the years.

"I'm not ashamed of any decision that we have made as a Marine Employee Commission," said Swanson.

This legislative session, Sen. Haugen will again propose eliminating the MEC in a bill that contains several other ferry reforms.
 
"We can't afford to do everything. We're going to have to become more cost effective, we're going to have to change how we do government," said Haugen.

MEC Commissioners are appointed by the governor. There is no limit to how long they can serve  on the MEC.

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