Petersburg ferry workers speak out on budget cuts

Jack Slaght (right), a Petersburg resident and Chief Engineer for the Alaska state ferry Malaspina, watches as residents Dan Sullivan and Karen Dillman sign a petition to recall Governor Mike Dunleavy. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

The ferry union strike might be over but some Petersburg ferry workers are still concerned about the state cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System and other services.

Outside a local café in Petersburg, Jack Slaght talks with customers about signing a petition to recall Governor Mike Dunleavy.

“Good morning, would you like to sign this petition to recall the Governor?” he asked a woman heading into the building.

Slaght isn’t one of Petersburg’s more politically active figures. He doesn’t usually go to political meetings or protests. He’s a ferry worker — the Chief Engineer for the state ferry Malaspina. He says that speaking out could cost him his job.

“There could be ramifications,” Slaght said. “There could be retaliation, I understand that my job could be in jeopardy.”

But he says he can’t stay quiet. He’s concerned with many areas cut in the state budget including to the ferry service. Slaght wasn’t part of the striking union but says his concerns go way deeper than those negotiations.

“The strike is miniscule compared to what is at stake for the whole state in general,” he said.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has released a schedule for the winter with severe cutbacks to ferry services to some communities.

Slaght worries that the gaps in service could lead to what are called “cold unmanned lay ups” where vessels are left alone for months. He says that would be devastating to the condition of the fleet.

“Given their age — 55 years old for the oldest ones — if there’s no one on board taking care of them the damage will be tremendous,” Slaght said.

Another Petersburg ferry worker, Jay Beasley, is part of the union that was on strike. He’s been a steward for the ferry service for six years. He spent over a week striking in Ketchikan at the ferry terminal. Reached by phone he says the strike that went on day and night was worth it.

“Long days, you know, just long days on the picket line trying to drum up support for us,” Beasley said.

Beasley says the Governor and many legislators outside of the Southeast region don’t realize how important the ferry system is to residents. He doesn’t think the current winter ferry schedule will get the communities the service they need nor stewards like himself enough work. It’s tough for him to think about the other workers because they’re such a tight-knit group.

“You’re on this boat for at least one whole week and you get to know them really well,” Beasley said.

Beasley says the budget cuts will affect his family. His wife is a dispatcher at the police station. He says if he can’t get enough work on a ferry this winter, he’ll try to get another job but he’ll probably end up on unemployment.

“After October 1 in Petersburg there aren’t a lot of jobs out there,” Beasley said.

He says the state budget cuts—not only to the ferry system—are short sighted.

“I just think it’s really sad that in this day and age that we can’t find a solution to these problems other than just take gigantic cuts from the budget,” Beasley said.

Back at the café, Slaght would agree. It’s more than just the ferry service at stake.

“I have a little granddaughter whose the apple of my eye, she’s not quite two. If these draconian measures go unchecked my little granddaughter will not have a chance to have a good education in this state. So that puts me on the war path; this is not acceptable,” he said.

There are efforts going on throughout the state to recall Governor Dunleavy. It will take 29,000 signatures to start a recall petition and later in the process, a public vote.