With a contract that expired more than a year ago and no real end in sight at the bargaining table, tension has begun to escalate between management and vessel workers at the Steamship Authority.

Union workers picketed SSA terminals on both sides of the sound over Memorial Day weekend, waving signs that put the spotlight on a simmering and now long-running dispute over manning levels, wages and retirement benefits.

The contract for vessel workers expired in April of 2003 and talks have been under way for more than a year. Both sides in the dispute say they are very far apart.

The contract talks are layered with complicated issues, but in the end the difference between the two sides can be boiled down to simple terms. Workers want higher wages and better benefits. Senior managers at the boat line are open about their quest to stem rising costs, meaning: reduce manning levels on vessels. The SSA spends about 60 per cent of its $68 million operating budget on personnel.

"We have good people, they work hard, but the truth is that we are not competitive in the marketplace and we need to do something about it," said Fred C. Raskin, chief executive officer of the SSA.

"Our main issues are safety and security, and we are very upset that they have opened the door to privatization," said William Campbell, union representative for the Marine Engineers and Benevolent Association (MEBA), the union that represents some 250 unlicensed vessel employees, including mates, seamen, engineers, deckhands and cooks.

Union issues can be difficult to track at the Steamship Authority, where some 578 employees are covered by eight separate bargaining units.

But the current focus is on vessel workers.

Overmanning on SSA ferries has been a topic of discussion that goes back nearly to the beginning of the 44-year-old public boat line.

The Steamship Authority is the only state ferry service in the country that operates without subsidy.

SSA general counsel Steven Sayers recently prepared a paper analyzing manning levels, wages and other compensation for boat line employees.

The paper shows that contracted manning levels exceed Coast Guard minimum requirements on every vessel on both Island runs. On the ferry Martha's Vineyard, for example, minimum Coast Guard manning requirements calls for 30 vessel workers, while the SSA has 45. On the Islander the minimum manning requirement is 27, while the actual manning level on the boat is 45. On the Governor, a freight boat, the minimum manning requirement under Coast Guard rules is 18, while the SSA has contracted for 24 vessel workers. On the Sankaty, also a freight boat, the minimum is 21 while the actual manning level is 23. The positions include masters, pilots, able-bodied seamen, ordinary seamen, deckhands, chief engineers, oilers and wipers.

Mr. Sayers also did an analysis of SSA wages and compared them with industry wages both on the state and federal level.

The starting wage for an ordinary seaman is $39,600, and total compensation with benefits and retirement is $59,855. Starting pay for a pilot/mate is $65,294, with total compensation of $94,662. Starting pay for a chief engineer is $82,348, with total compensation of $111,906.

Using numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mr. Sayers found that the average starting pay for sailors is $30,550, the average pay for ship engineers is $52,190 and the average pay for captains, mates and pilots is $51,430.

Mr. Sayers also found that the percentage of health and retirement benefits paid by the boat line is much higher than state and national averages.

"We're overmanned and they're overpaid for what they do - and that's before we even begin to talk about overtime," Mr. Sayers said. He said overmanning on boat line vessels is a well-entrenched union concept. In the last decade or so, Mr. Sayers said manning on vessels has been pared back some - he said the boats used to be staffed with all manner of extra crew, including quartermasters. He also said vessel contracts are still riddled with what he called "gotchas" - for example, he said, if a wiper picks up a wrench during a watch, he or she is entitled to overtime pay.

Mr. Campbell said Mr. Sayers' analysis is flawed and misleading because it compares apples to oranges.

"The Steamship Authority is the only full service ferry system in the state of Massachusetts, and it is the only ferry company that transports vehicles and hazardous materials. They are comparing us to an average of all maritime employees, right down to 30-foot ferryboats that run in harbors," he said. "Our employees are all Coast Guard documented, they are all trained and highly skilled. The wages they are quoting are not for career mariners," he added.

The union representative also took an opposite view on manning.

For one thing, he said under the new Homeland Security Act, the SSA is required to submit a security plan to the Coast Guard by July 1. The boat line security plan as it is now written calls for manning at its current levels, Mr. Campbell said.

"This we believe affects the safety and security of the ridership," he said.

Mr. Campbell was also sharply critical of Mr. Raskin. He said the CEO has refused to honor a request from the union to come to the bargaining table himself, and he openly accused him of having a privatization agenda - pointing, for example, to the decision to convert the ferry Schamonchi to a private route.

"We lost 12 jobs out of that," Mr. Campbell said. "That's what this is all about and we are very upset that they have opened up the door to privatization," he added.

Mr. Raskin, a tough labor negotiator with a long background in marine transportation, had his own remarks about the union.

"Management is trying to reduce costs, and we have too many people. We're not just saying starting tomorrow no one has a job - but the real parties at interest aren't at the table. The union is at the table, and it serves no union purpose to see the membership dwindle - even if it were acceptable to membership, it is difficult for the union," he said.

No one expects bargaining talks to end soon.

Many eyes are now on Mr. Raskin, who initiated a complicated series of steps with the boat line board of governors two months ago to possibly terminate his own contract. The result will not be known until the end of this month, and Mr. Raskin remains mum on the subject - but there are many signs that he will resign.

Mr. Campbell had blunt advice for Mr. Raskin. "I just have one suggestion for him before he takes his next job - he should get a road map," he said.

Meanwhile, as the busy summer season gets under way on boat line ferries, more informational pickets are expected around the port terminals.

"There will be many more coming," Mr. Campbell confirmed.

"They can picket as much as they want as long as they don't disrupt operations," Mr. Sayers said.

Boat line employees are prohibited from striking by state law.

Mr. Raskin said he still hopes to find some middle ground.

"We haven't made much progress, I know it's disappointing. We want a contract, too. But both parties have to conclude there is a problem and there is no immediate solution. But by working together we can work toward a solution with minimal impact on our workforce," he said.