Calm Waters

Boats in the Skagway Small Boat Harbor are secured tight for the winter, in anticipation of rougher weather. Photo by Dimitra Lavrakas

WP&YR is back on track
Railroad Retirement Board reverses decision

There was joy in Skagway.
The Railroad Retirement Board for the first time in its 66-year history, rescinded its decision to remove the Pacific and Arctic Railway and Navigation Co., a subsidiary of White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, from its rolls.
As of the first of November, PARN employees were reinstated to the board’s retirement and benefits plan.
In late March, the board ruled the company would lose its benefits as of 1988, when the railroad reopened, after a six-year shutdown, as a tourist-only railway. But in April, the board decided to return coverage as of March 2000.
The board became suspicious after a case was brought against the company for an illegal seasonal employee scheme to avoid paying employee taxes as required by the board. White Pass pleaded guilty in 1999 to three misdemeanor charges as a result of the Internal Revenue Service investigation.
After its own investigation, the board concluded that White Pass was no longer a railroad under its guidelines, because it had become an excursion railroad, no longer hauled freight, and the majority of its trips were round-trip. Less than one percent of passengers were through-ticketed, according to the information given to the board, and that did not qualify it as an interstate rail carrier under federal law.
Employees who had seen themselves as railroad workers, some who had generations of railroaders before them, now found themselves not only without retirement benefits, but without the pride of working on a real railroad.
“I think the part that bothered people the most was that we were no longer a railroad, that we were considered a Disneyland train, and that was an adjustment people did not want to make,” said John Mielke, WP&YR chief mechanical officer. “It made them feel less than they were, especially those who had worked on the railroad for years. ‘You know, we’re not a real railroad,’ was something I heard said a lot.”
With the relief of the decision comes the hard part, said Fred McCorriston, WP&YR president.
“To get back on the system – that will take a lot of administrative work,” McCorriston said. “It’s never been done before. It’s a first for them (RRB) – going off and going back on.”
“It makes me happy,” said Mielke. “I think there’s still a lot of questions to be answered about the last seven months when we were on Social Security. From April to October, that’s still a big question mark.”
For Tim Sunday, Southeast business representative for Teamsters Local 959, much of the credit for the victory goes to the union.
“I think this shows what a group of workers that have a union representing them can do – that’s definitely one of the high points of this,” said Sunday from Hawaii on his honeymoon. “The downside of this is it should never have happened.
“They should never have taken this railroad out of the system. It’s sad we had to spend all of this time and effort to do it.”
McCorriston agrees on that point.
“Not having due process hearings – if there had been more due process with hearings and getting feedback, in retrospect this would never have happened,” McCorriston said.
But it did. Sunday said the company and McCorriston helped by providing the correct information to the board that turned its decision around.
“How could the board not reverse its decision if the union and the president of the company were in agreement?” asked Sunday. “We’re very happy all the workers are now covered again and the railroad is again a railroad.
“The bummer for the company is now it has to go back and pay all that back into the system.”
Sunday said the union is not stopping with this victory, and will try to get its legal fees paid back by the board.

Show us the money

Skagway to get big forest bucks for six years

The United State Forest Service has released information on the funds Alaska communities will receive from the National Forest Receipts Program. Through the Alaska Department of Communities and Economic Development, Skagway will receive $200,000 a year for the next six years, said program manager Bill Rolfzen.
“That should be a lot more money than they’ve received over the last few years,” Rolfzen said. “The money will go out at this time next year. I think my estimates are pretty close.”
The money can be used for schools and roads, with 15 percent set aside for special projects, Rolfzen said.
But Skagway Mayor John Mielke said he didn’t know “whether to jump for joy or throw up.”
Mielke said the downside is when communities accept the money, they are in effect accepting the loss of control over their natural resources.
“I think that comes from cutting back on logging,” he said. “When we accept that money we can’t say we want to go back to logging. With the roadless plan (in National Forests), cutting back on the amount of board feet to be harvested, I suppose, for a community, it doesn’t address the future.”

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