Unions thwart market-driven ferry service

When the government provides a particular service rather than allowing private businesses to meet the demand, public employee unions can be a pain in the neck.

On the rare occasion when government decides to let private businesses take over, those same unions find themselves in an entirely different game — one that they don’t like.

As the ferry service between Kitsap and King counties evolves to adapt to changing circumstances, the Inlandboatmen’s Union appears to be having trouble accepting the idea that expenses must be reduced now that taxpayers won’t be paying as much of the operating costs.

Already, the return of food service operations has been stalled by the union’s insistence on contract terms that would remove the incentive to run that business onboard some ferries.

Now, the union is trying to use the state bureaucracy to fend off anything resembling competition for the state ferry service.

The legislature determined in 2003 that the state ferry service should concentrate on its core mission of transporting motor vehicles on the ferries and that passenger-only ferries should be operated by other entities. With that, the state got out of the passenger-only ferry business between Kitsap and King counties.

If the voters of Kitsap county had approved, passenger-only ferries would have been operated by Kitsap Transit with most of the cost put on the shoulders of taxpayers.

That didn’t happen, so private companies stepped forward to offer true mass-transit service, namely passenger-only ferries operating when there is a demand for the service.

It seems the union is bothered mightily by the idea that private businesses may compete in providing ferry service to the public--perhaps because featherbedding is more difficult in the absence of a taxpayer-funded monopoly.

Judging from the reported content of the formal protest filed with the Utilities and Trans-portation Commission, the union is grasping at straws.

The commission must determine whether the private ferry operators should be permitted to engage in this business, which requires a showing that the companies have the wherewithal to operate for at least a year.

Naturally the union asserts that the applicants aren’t financially sound, but that should be an easy one for the commission to handle. The applicants don’t appear to be fly-by-night schemers.

Also, the commission is directed by statute to “give substantial weight to the effect of its decisions on public agencies operating, or eligible to operate, passenger-only ferry service.”

The state ferry service is eligible to operate such ferries, but the state has chosen not to do so. And, the state ferry service doesn’t oppose allowing private businesses to operate passenger-only ferries.

Kitsap Transit is eligible, but doesn’t have the needed funding, so is supporting the applicants.

The union’s protest argues that the private companies will take riders away from the state’s automobile ferries and lead to future service reductions and job losses — an argument that the interested public agency apparently doesn’t agree with.

When the state ferry service operated passenger-only ferries to and from Kitsap County, the unions didn’t seem to fear any adverse impact on automobile ferry service, but this situation isn’t the same — actual competition might result.

Competitive pressure may force the state ferry service and its employees to operate differently — that is, more efficiently and with greater attention to customer service.

Even the seemingly little things might matter. Allowing selfish boors to stretch out for a nap and deny other passengers a chance to sit down might send customers to the other ferry.

It may make a difference when tickets purchased for a ride to Bremerton indicate that the passenger is going to Bainbridge Island, thereby preventing the state ferry service from accurately gauging demand.

Being a pain in the neck can endanger one’s job security when the customers have a choice, and that cannot be a pleasant prospect for the union to contemplate.

Some day, we may have passenger-only ferry service that satisfies genuine demand, but not if the union can stop it. The example would endanger its privileged position by illustrating the difference between supplying a service for which there is a demand and running a public jobs program under the guise of providing a necessary public service.

Privately operated passenger-only ferries will eventually ply the waters to and from Kitsap County, but it remains to be seen how long we must wait for that day to come.

The beginning of private ferry service will, of course, present its own union-related problems, if the union obtains a monopoly on labor by persuading the employees of the new businesses to join.

But the struggle to convince a majority of our citizens that monopoly power is not in their best interests, whether the monopoly is held by management or labor, must be left for another day.

First things first: Get those passenger-only ferries going.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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