Boatline Labor Contract Collapses Unexpectedly; Union Infighting Is Cited

By MIKE SECCOMBE

Just as it appeared that four years of difficult negotiations had finally produced a new workplace agreement between the Steamship Authority and one of its major unions, the deal fell apart this week, apparently as a result of a leadership contest within the union.

Agreement between the boat line and the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA) on a new contract with some 230 unlicensed SSA employees was reached June 15, after two days of mediation involving a state-appointed fact finder.

The agreement, negotiated on behalf of the union by its Atlantic region vice president Don Keefe, appeared all but certain of ratification by union members at meetings held this week.

However, members rejected the new offer after late intervention by the union's national president Ron Davis. It is understood the vote was 73-50.

Steamship Authority governors were expected to ratify the new union deal at their July board meeting, which will be held in Hyannis on Tuesday morning.

But while the key union contract goes back to the drawing board, SSA governors will have one easy decision to make - the sale of the ferry Islander, not for scrap, but as a going concern.

The Islander went out for bid after her retirement from the Vineyard route in March, at the end of 56 years of service. She was reckoned to be worth $200,000 as scrap, but SSA managers were hopeful that they could sell her for $750,000 or more to someone who would keep her in service.

Only one bid was received, for $500,000 from the Governor's Island Preservation and Education Corporation. Her future now seems assured: plying the busier but less tempestuous waters of New York harbor. Governor's Island sits about 800 yards off the southern tip of Manhattan.

Management will recommend the sale.

The meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. in the second floor conference room at the Hyannis terminal.

As for the contract negotiations, it appears they could remain stalled until MEBA resolves its internal ructions.

On June 28, six days after an agreement in principle was reached between boat line and union negotiators led by Mr. Keefe, MEBA's national president, Ron Davis, wrote to members attacking Mr. Keefe for having "resisted" passing on information about the negotiations. Mr. Davis questioned the process by which the deal had been made, and asked members to contact him directly with any outstanding concerns.

"Dear brothers and sisters," the letter began. "It is unfortunate that I have to reach out directly to you for information with respect to your bargaining unit."

He went on to say Mr. Keefe had kept him uninformed and had rejected his offers to become directly involved in negotiations. Mr. Davis said he had offered to "reshuffle the negotiating team" to "help relieve the tension that may exist between the parties." He also wrote:

"One of the reasons why I am writing to you is that I need to review the collective bargaining agreements and sign those agreements in accordance with my duties and responsibilities as president . . .

"And in order for me to sign off on any agreements I need to know where the membership stands . . .

"I am asking you for any information regarding outstanding issues at the Steamship Authority. Most importantly, I need to know whether you are satisfied with the contract negotiations to date and with any resulting terms and conditions reached."

Mr. Davis invited members to discuss the deal with him. Whether he actively counseled them against acceptance is unknown, but sources said the letter played into the decision by members not to ratify the deal.

The context for the animosity between the two officials shown in the letter is that an election for the presidency is about to take place. The list of candidates is due to be officially released today, but union sources said Mr. Keefe will challenge Mr. Davis for the job.

Neither man could be contacted for comment yesterday, nor would boat line managers comment on where the rejection of the agreement leaves the negotiating process.

The previous workplace agreement between the SSA and the union expired in April 2003; parties on both sides have been negotiating a new deal since August of that year.

Also on the agenda Tuesday morning is consideration of bids for the first stage of the reconstruction of the Oak Bluffs terminal, at a cost of about $4.5 million. The entire project is scheduled to take three years.

The board also will consider new winter and spring schedules and plans for the mid-life refurbishment of the ferry Nantucket.