Over-manning on vessels run by the Steamship Authority costs more than $3 million each year, according to estimates by the Authority.

The boat line contends that its ships operate with crews more than 52 per cent above minimum Coast Guard requirements in the summer tourist season and more than 40 per cent above requirements in the off-season.

The numbers come from documents prepared by the SSA, in relation to its protracted negotiations over wages and conditions of employment with the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA), the union representing licensed engineers and unlicensed crew members.

The union and the authority have been locked in an industrial stalemate since April 2003 in the case of the unlicensed employees, and since April 2004 in the case of the engineers, when previous collective bargaining agreements ended.

Falmouth governor and chairman of the SSA Robert Marshall said yesterday that the board is united in its determination not to give in to union demands on wages and conditions, already ranked among the highest in the country.

Mr. Marshall blamed MEBA for fare increases recently announced by the boat line, which will generate an extra $4 million next year.

"If our wage structure was consistent with national transportation wage numbers, we would not be looking at an increase, we would be looking at a decrease," the Falmouth governor said, adding:

"We got here because of past boards' unwillingness or inability to hold some kind of reasonable standard as regards our manning issues. It has caught up with us. And we have got to do something about it in order to protect travel availability for the folks on the Island."

Yet the board agreed last year to the continuation of an arrangement which will maintain current manning levels that are well above U.S. Coast Guard requirements for another five and a half years.

Under the deal, the union agreed to a cut of 23 positions - involving payouts of some $800,000 to the redundant workers - in return for agreement to maintain crewing levels until April 2011.

The agreement saves the SSA some $1.3 million a year, but also serves to lock in the current wage cost structure and make the dispute more intractable, with management unable to make further unilateral cuts in crewing and the union legally prohibited from striking.

Management has refused a union offer to enter into binding arbitration and the workers have gone without a pay raise since their previous collective bargaining agreement expired.

The most recent version of the SSA's offer would give its 230-odd unlicensed vessel employees ­ - seamen, bosuns, chief cooks, oilers and wipers - an across-the-board six per cent wage increase on contract execution, and an additional three per cent on the anniversaries of the deal, for the following three years.

The offer to the 25 licensed engineers was four per cent and two per cent on the two subsequent anniversaries.

Respective MEBA counter-offers were for six per cent, retroactive to January this year, then two annual increases of five per cent and two more of four per cent for unlicensed operators.

For licensed engineers the counter-offer was six per cent, retroactive to April 17, 2004, and five additional annual raises of four per cent.

In its written submission to the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission, the SSA said the wages and benefits already were out of line with its other employees, and also with competitors.

"The SSA's unlicensed vessel employees and licensed engineers are among the highest paid employees in the country for the work they do," it said.

With overtime and other premium pay benefits, the engineers received annual wages ranging between about $80,000 and $100,000 and received an array of other benefits, including retirement benefits which could range up to 170 per cent of their highest working wage after 30 years.

"Right now they are not reasonably well paid, they are extraordinarily well paid," Mr. Marshall said."I don't think we've had anybody quit in 25 years. They retire happy, but nobody quits."

But Boston MEBA spokesman Bill Campbell challenged the SSA's claims that overpayment and overmanning were responsible for the need to raise rates by Steamship Authority.

"Year after year they raise rates as they have just done and they blame it on labor. Yet the unlicensed members, who number about 230, have not had a raise in four years, and in each of the last four years, their rates have gone up," Mr. Campbell said, adding:

"We agreed to a reduction in manning of 23 positions two years ago. They have also cut more than 25 per cent of the engineers." He continued:

"The real answer is that they cannot control their other costs. The [new ferry] Island Home will use three to four time the fuel of the boat it's replacing. The estimate for the cost of Island Home was $22 million; now they're at $33 million. They re-powered the Flying Cloud, which missed over 1,000 trips, at a cost of over $1 million for the sole purpose of resale.

"The Nantucket is due for a mid-life refurbishment and estimated the cost at $5 million. The only quote they got was $7.5 million.

"They're consistently 50 per cent out in their cost estimates."

As for allegedly excessive retirement benefits, Mr. Campbell said the Deep Sea fund, which the SSA complained about, was a fully funded union scheme which cost the SSA "not one penny," and that real-life benefits were nowhere near as generous as the boat line's projections.

"We had an engineer who retired two years ago and he gets $1,500 a month and he started in 1967," Mr. Campbell said.

And contrary to Mr. Marshall's claims, he said crews are deeply unhappy and leaving in large numbers.

"Since the payout in early 2005, which cut the 23 positions, they have hired around 80 unlicensed employees," he said. "And 57 have left."

Mr. Campbell said management intransigence was to blame for the industrial deadlock.

"The company refuses to let us go to binding arbitration," he said. "But if they believe their stance is correct, they should welcome an independent third party looking at all the evidence and making an informed decision on behalf of both parties.

"That's all we're asking for."