By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - Alaska ferry workers and state officials were seeking a federal mediator's help on Saturday to end a strike that has disrupted travel during the peak summer tourist season as the labor dispute surfaced in the 2020 presidential campaign.
The strike, which started on Wednesday, has halted traffic for the Alaska Marine Highway System, the state-operated ferry system that serves 35 coastal towns, most of them without outside road access.
Leaders of the union representing the ferry workers, the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific, and state officials were scheduled to meet with the federal mediator Saturday afternoon.
"We are hoping with all our heart to get back to work today," said Robb Arnold, vice chairman of the IBU's Alaska regional board.
The union represents more than 400 deckhands and other workers, the bulk of the people employed on the ships. Two other unions represent ship masters, mates, pilots and marine engineers; those unions are not on strike but are honoring the IBU's picket lines.
Arnold said the IBU strike is a response to a failure to secure a new three-year contract and what he said was a series of unfair labor practices. The union's contract expired in mid-2017, but terms were to have been extended under interim agreement
State officials contend that the strike is illegal. In a letter sent Friday to the union, state Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka warned that if the strike continued into August, the state would no longer be paying ferry workers' health insurance premiums.
Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris weighed in on the strike on Saturday, saying she stood in solidarity with the workers."Alaskans deserve safe transportation options and the Inland Boatmen's Union and its members deserve fair wages and safe working conditions," said Harris, a U.S. senator from California.
On Friday former vice president Joe Biden, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, tweeted in support of the striking workers and urged Alaska's governor to "restore full funding immediately."
The Alaska Marine Highway System serves 33 communities in Alaska and two outside the state: Bellingham, Washington, and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Most of the ferry communities, including the state capital of Juneau, can be reached only by airplane or by boat.
As of Friday afternoon, about 4,000 passengers had been issued refunds totaling $2.1 million in fares for canceled travel, according to state officials.
(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis)