Alcatraz Ferry Workers Want to Unionize

Zack Haber
5 min readAug 25, 2022

Workers hope a union will give them fair scheduling, predictable raises, job security, adequate training, respect and a seat at the table. The company wants to communicate directly to workers ‘rather than through any third party.’

Alcatraz Ferry workers pose for a photo during a meeting on July 18 at the ILWU Local 10 Hall in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of ILWU.

Workers who operate and provide services to customers riding the ferry that runs from San Francisco’s Pier 33 to Alcatraz Island are attempting to form a union.

“I think if we formed a union this would be a happy place,” said Erik Anfinson, who works as a captain at Alcatraz Cruises, which operates the ferry. “We used to have that, but now it’s gone.”

Anfinson feels that working conditions and morale have deteriorated since the ferry reopened post-COVID. He’s one of 68 workers who signed a letter in mid-July asking Hornblower Group, the company that runs Alcatraz Cruises, to recognize their union. About 85 employees, according to Anfinson, work at the ferry.

These employees include other captains, as well as deckhands, maintenance, ticket booth, and food and beverage workers. Some workers make as much as 55 dollars an hour while others make around 20 dollars an hour. Anfinson wants all workers to get a yearly cost of living wage increase.

Hornblower Group has chosen not to honor the workers’ request for them to voluntarily recognize their union.

“We enjoy and value being able to directly communicate with our employees, and believe that the company, our employees and our guests are better served when such communications occur directly between the company and its employees rather than through any third party, including a labor organization,” reads a statement that Hornblower Group Vice President of Communications Melissa Gunderson emailed to this reporter.

Ultimately, the workers are attempting to unionize by joining the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, which is also known as the IBU, and is a part of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, or the ILWU. A recent post on an instagram account representing the proposed Alcatraz ferry union reads “We are organizing because we deserve fair scheduling, predictable raises, job security, adequate training, respect and a seat at the table.”

For the union drive to be successful, the workers will have to go through a formal vote as organized by the National Labor Review Board. They are working through that process currently, and hope to unionize sometime in the coming weeks.

If the workers do secure a union, it won’t be the first time Alcatraz ferry workers have been unionized. The companies that had operated the ferry from its opening in 1973 until 2006, had always hired union workers. But when Hornblower Group took over the ferry in 2006, they set up Alcatraz Cruises, an operation that no longer allowed union representation for ferry workers, and the Alcatraz ferry workers have been nonunion ever since.

Anfinson hopes that a union contract will help him secure some stability with his work schedule. He says his work hours change from week to week in an unpredictable manner.

“I want to know when I can make doctors and dentist appointments,” he said. “Not having a set schedule makes it tough, you can’t plan anything.”

In her email, Gunderson, of Hornblower, attributed the unpredictability to problems related to COVID, but said that the situation is now becoming better.

“Like most employers across a host of industries, the pandemic caused staffing challenges at Alcatraz City Cruises, and this issue was compounded by unpredictable government restrictions and related tourist demand that rapidly changed with COVID variants,” reads Gunderson’s email. “We now are almost fully staffed at pre-COVID levels, tourist demand has stabilized, and we believe schedule predictability is improving and will continue to improve.”

Gunderson did not respond when asked to provide current and pre-COVID staff numbers. According to Anfinson, Alcatraz Cruises has less than half the employees it had before COVID, which forces him and other workers to take on more tasks and work longer hours than they used to.

“They don’t want to hire more employees and I don’t know why,” said Anfinson. “I think they’re just trying to cut back on everything.”

An Alcatraz ferry worker, who asked not to be named due to fears of retaliation, told this reporter they feel a union could help them and their co-workers to secure safer working conditions and a smoother safer operation for customers. They expressed frustration at ferry delays that occur multiple times a week. They also described sewage lines backing up and overflowing at least three times this year.

“I’m concerned for the safety and well being of my co-workers and the guests,” said the worker. “I really feel the union would have our back and give us an added protection.”

The worker criticized the company for hiring two business consultants. They say the consultants have been talking with staff to try to dissuade workers from unionizing. The consultants work for The Redd Group, a company that lists “union prevention” as a service it offers on its website. The worker wishes the money Hornblower is spending on the consultants could go elsewhere.

“That money would be better spent doing permanent repair work on our boats,” they said.

In her emailed statement, Gunderson compared their two consultants to Northern California ILWU Organizer Evan McLaughlin, since all three people are paid to talk with workers about union related issues.

“It would be unfair to let the union tell our employees only one side of the story,” Gunderson wrote. “We have engaged these consultants to ensure that our employees are informed, hearing both the pros and cons of unionizing from credible sources with knowledge of union governance and dues.”

Gunderson also wrote that the consultants are fluent in Spanish, the primary language of many of the ferry’s workers, and stated that workers “deserve these important communications in their primary language.”

McLaughlin, who has been organizing with workers to form a union, says he’s fluent in Spanish, and has been talking with workers in English and Spanish. He sent this reporter union update documents that the IBU and ILWU unions had recently distributed to workers which appeared in both English and Spanish.

According to Anfinson, a captain who works at the ferry, employment numbers at the ferry fluctuate according to customer demand over the course of a year. Hornblower hires more employees and increases hours during the summer, when demand is high, but in the winter, hours and workers get cut. In an interview, he talked about how if staff were unionized, he and other ship workers would have access to IBU’s union hall, which can offer temporary employment to certain ship workers at other locations during the offseason when his hours are cut. He also feels the fluctuation in employment has posed difficulties to unionization efforts in the past.

“We’ve been talking about unionizing for years,” said Anfinson. “But they let people go during the offseason and we have to start all over; it’s like a revolving door.”

Anfinson feels an urgency to get to the vote soon, and that momentum is building for unionization. On Sunday, at noon, the workers are hosting an event, which is open to the public, at Pier 33 in San Francisco, to celebrate their union’s formation, and show the worker’s optimism.

“I think the work atmosphere will be better,” said Anfinson. “I feel confident like there’s going to be some change.”

Notes: A similar version of this story is scheduled to be published soon by The Post News Group.