How will we clean up galley mess?

Cross-sound ferry service enjoys its share of happy paradoxes. For professionals heading east to Seattle each morning, the 35-minute commute – nightmarish for workers approaching the city from any other direction – is spent in the luxurious lap of cushioned seats, morning papers, aisleways with ample stretch-your-legroom, and peerless water and mountain views. Most hours of the day, the boats themselves are too big to operate economically; yet during

commuter runs and on big-game afternoons, passengers readily fill them to profitable capacity, and overflow motorists are relegated to the holding area as the boat steams away.

That the ferry system continues to exist at all, when clever engineers could probably span Puget Sound in their sleep, defies any logic not tied to politics. (Note: we are not calling for a bridge to the mainland; we called these “happy” paradoxes.)

Sailing in the face of such realities, ferry service maintains a somewhat tenuous grasp on viability. This week, reality caught up with one of its more odds-defying facets – the presence of marginally profitable galley service with unionized (i.e. decently paid) fry cooks on routes that see daily and seasonal fluctuations in ridership (and thus, customer base). Ferry kitchens shut down with the New Year, after 11th-hour contract negotiations between Washington State Ferries and Maryland-based concessionaire Sodexho broke down; the Inlandboatmen’s Union, representing workers, kibitzed angrily from the wings.

How to measure the loss? Commuters will hardly be put out if forced to carry a Thermos to work; there was indeed an age when steamed milk was not integral to the morning caffeine buzz. And price-wise, the galleys were no bargain; sports fans wanting a cold beer were gouged as mercilessly on the boat as at the stadium. But while decidedly non-essential, there was always something pleasant about galley service that enhanced the ferry experience. We’re sad to see it go.

Since beginning the search for new vendors last summer, WSF officials have said their real aim is to increase the variety of fare for riders; as to their proper cut of the galley take, officials say they need a sufficient percentage that taxpayers aren’t left to subsidize kitchen equipment upkeep. But the cash-strapped WSF is clearly trying to eke more money out of its contracts, and was recently rapped by a labor board for not requiring new vendors to honor the current contract with the galley workers’ union.

For its part, the IBU portrays WSF director Mike Thorne as a union-buster; various area politicians dutifully marched at a union rally at Colman Dock this past fall. But while we certainly don’t begrudge anyone a living-wage job, it doesn’t take an MBA to figure that when fry cooks and cashiers are earning more on the water than they would for the same jobs on land, vendors will find it harder to run a galley in the black, especially after WSF gets its cut.

Next Friday, Jan. 9, is the deadline for new applications by would-be concessionaires to restore galley service come spring; yet with WSF and union officials denouncing each other for their tactics, we wonder whether any vendors will muster the enthusiasm to come forward.

Who’d want to step in that mess?

And where is the leadership to bring the sides together?

For more than riders’ convenience was lost when the galleys closed their doors; so too were some 130 decent-paying local jobs. Both WSF and the union can accept some of the blame – but there’s another paradox for you.

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