The Newfoundland and Labrador government is pointing the finger at ferry captains, blaming their union for disruptions in service as complaints from frustrated travellers pile up.
In response, the Canadian Merchant Service Guild has fired right back, claiming the provincial government changed its tune in negotiations at the last minute, and alleging the captains are still being treated worse than the crew they supervise.
Ferry routes have been relegated to a pared-down, essential service schedule for nine days, since the captains began striking. On Thursday, two government ministers said the union broke off negotiations in 2018 and have declined offers to return to resume bargaining since then.
Steve Crocker, the president of the Treasury Board, told reporters Thursday that the provincial government has offered a five per cent raise, and said the union should accept it.
"We feel we have a fair and reasonable offer on the table," he said. "It's the offer that other public service unions have accepted over the last eight years."
He said the offer also includes some new increases for shift differentials and allowances — and said it was the government's final offer.
"This is our offer. The province right now is not in a fiscal situation to move from that offer," he said.
In a statement, the captains guild said the latest government offer came only after the union told government it was about to strike. It said the new offer does show some concessions on wage increases, but still limits how far those raises go back.
"Even with the new offer, the employer wants to treat the captains differently by limiting pay retroactivity," reads the statement issued Thursday. "Pay retroactivity is a standard feature of all public sector collective agreements and it was not limited for other public servants."
The union wants the raises to apply retroactively to 2018, while the government is pushing for a start date of January 2020.
"The guild has only ever sought to have the captains treated like other public servants, and most particularly the crew they supervise on the ferries," says the statement. "The employer's current offer does not do that because of the limit on retroactivity, the refusal to address the sailing schedule issue, and several other matters."
'We want to get a deal'
Five ferry runs are affected by the strike, which started Aug. 25, including one of the province's busiest: the route between Portugal Cove and Bell Island.
As part of the essential service schedule, priority has been given to essential workers and those with medical appointments and emergencies. Since the schedule has been implemented, online user groups have been flooded with complaints about being left behind, and horror stories from those with extraordinarily long waits.
Derrick Bragg, the transportation minister and the MHA for Fogo Island-Cape Freels, took time Thursday to condemn stories that he's heard of people cutting the line.
"I'm hearing stories of someone waving an empty envelope, saying, 'I have a doctor's appointment.' That person should be absolutely ashamed of themselves, to take the position of someone who definitely needed to get off the island or back on the island with their loved ones."
The transportation committee from Fogo Island's town council has said it plans to write to Premier Andrew Furey to ask for a meeting to convey residents' frustrations.
Crocker said the service disruption has aggravated the impact and strain of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We realize the impacts this is having on the people that live on these islands around the province," he said. "We want to get a deal here. We want to reconsider the offer, again, and get back to providing the service that's necessary for the people on our islands."
The captains have been without a contract and a wage increase since 2012, and want raises in line with those of the other ferry workers.
Crocker told reporters his government has not considered legislating all ferry captains back to work.
"If you look at recent case history around the country, that's not something that has been well received, I think would be fair, in the last number of years," he said. "So at this point in time that's not something that we're considering."
Ten captains are working despite the strike. Bragg said when they are not sailing, they remain on the ferries so they can quickly transport people in case of emergency.
Wages are not the only thing at issue in the contract dispute; the other point of contention is having the daily sailing schedules of the ferries written into the collective agreement, states Thursday's press release from the ministers.
"This action would limit our future operating flexibility and increase overtime costs," states the release.
The guild, however, says the language it is looking for is already included in contracts for other ferry workers, and alleges it is only looking for the same treatment.
Their statement also repeats an offer to bring in an independent arbitrator to help settle the dispute.