Update: This story has been updated to include a response from Chumley’s Inc. General Manager Cliff Wittmer.
As dock workers with Chumley’s Inc. of Kenai on Tuesday began loading a ship to haul 22,000 metric tons of sulfur to Mexico, members and supporters of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Alaska Division and Homer – Unit 234 held an informational picket at the Homer Harbor to protest what the ILWU called substandard industry wage and benefit conditions.
Called an “area standards” picket, about 20 people held signs at the corner of Deep Water Dock Road and the Homer Spit Road reading “Chumley Unfair to Homer Dock Workers.” The workers came from around Alaska, including Homer, Juneau and Kodiak, for the picket.
The M/V Iberian Bulker moored at the Deep Water Dock late Monday night to begin taking on super sacks of sulfur stored at the Homer Harbor on the old chip pad that had been hauled down from the Marathon Oil Refinery in Nikiski. Sulfur is part of a refinery process to remove the polluting chemical from fuels, and the byproduct can be used to make fertilizer and other chemical compounds. For the past few months, trucks hauling big white sacks on trailers could be seen driving through town and out to the Spit.
HJ Baker of Shelton, Connecticut, is the buyer, according to Alissa Smith, a spokesperson for HJ Baker. In an email, she said the sulfur will be shipped to a customer in Mexico for use in the production of phosphate fertilizer.
HJ Baker made the arrangements for transportation, loading and shipping, said Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins. The City of Homer manages the Port of Homer, but the city does not dictate who should be hired so long as stevedore companies meet insurance, licensing and other requirements, Hawkins said.
“We are an open port,” he said, “We’re organized and managed as an open port.”
The buyer organized every aspect of the sulfur purchase from bagging it to shipping it by truck, Hawkins said.
“They’re paying all those bills, wharfage, dockage — all labor costs,” he said.
In an email, Smith said that since Homer is an open port, it conducted a competitive bid process and chose Chumley’s Inc. to handle the loading of sulfur out of Homer. She said HJ Baker is unaware of the rates Chumley’s pays its workers.
Chumley’s General Manager Cliff Wittmer told the Clarion on Wednesday that he pays his workers “standard” roustabout wages but declined to give a specific hourly rate.
In a press release, the ILWU Alaska Division and Homer – Unit 234 said the longshore work, such as the loading of the Iberian Bulker, has been performed by union workers for more than 50 years.
“Our contract provides the local registered and casual longshoremen with decent wages, health and welfare benefits, and pension benefits,” according to the press release.
Similar cargo operations have provided wages and benefits to Homer workers upwards of $150,000, the press release said.
On the picket line, ILWU Alaska Division President Dennis Young said workers get about $30 an hour and could have expected five or six days of work. Longshore work might be worth from 600 to 800 hours total a year. For the Iberian Bulker load alone, that would be about 200 hours of labor for the Homer work force. ILWU Homer workers also do longshore work for cruise ships in the summer.
“It’s all about local hire,” said Grant Lane, a longtime Homer ILWU member.
Wittmer said that about 30% of Chumley’s workers for this job are based out of the Anchor Point and Ninilchik area, along with about half of their truck drivers.
“Not one person inside our company lives outside of the peninsula,” Wittmer said.
The decision to not use union was a result of the bidding process, Wittmer said, and added that the longshoremen that were contracted bid on the project individually.
“We’re trying to do a job here and there’s a lot of information in the public bashing us and saying things that aren’t true,” Wittmer said. “I don’t like the attention being drawn, and it feels like if you engage in it you’re stooping to their level. I know where the company’s heart is and I know what we’re doing is right.”
Young said the picket was not to force Chumley’s to hire union workers, but to pay its dock workers comparable wages and benefits. In the press release, the ILWU said it contacted Chumley’s to find out if its wages and benefits equaled longshore contractual wages, but had not heard back from the company and “therefore believe that Chumley’s wages and benefits are below area standards.”
“If they prove to us they’re paying area standards, we’d stand down,” Young said.
Hawkins said the sulfur hauling and loading represents a boost to the Kenai Peninsula economy.
The city stands to reap $85,000 in wharfage fees — the per-ton fee paid to freight that goes across the Deep Water dock — as well as $2,582 a day for moorage, Hawkins said. HJ Baker also paid a storage fee of $26,521 to store the sacks of sulfur for about two months before shipping.
The last time sulfur was hauled out of Homer was in 2008.
“I was very pleased to see the project come together, especially in the off season like this,” Hawkins said. “It’s good solid jobs for a few months in the fall. We hope to do more. There’s more material to be shipped. Hopefully the markets make sense enough to put a deal together.”