The ferry Malaspina docked at Juneau’s Auke Bay terminal. File photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska

A strike that’s immobilized the Alaska Marine Highway System ended its second day as state officials and union leaders argued over its legality yet insisted both are ready to return to the table.

But as of late Thursday — that still hasn’t happened.

At Ketchikan’s ferry terminal, about 20 crew members stood on dry land holding signs at the picket line.

Passing cars honked their horns. Others expressed their displeasure through universal gestures.

“Listen to the horns — oh! — and the occasional finger,” Jana Ring, a chief purser, says holding a strike sign. “That’s the second one I’ve seen. You know, for the most part, people are supportive of us and we are just doing what we feel we need to do for a fair contract.”

She’s among the around 430 Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific members that walked off the job Wednesday afternoon.

The ferry system’s two other unions didn’t strike but pledged not to cross picket lines: a strike hasn’t shut down the ferry system since 1977.

“You know as long as the IBU is on strike, we can’t operate without them,” Department of Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon told CoastAlaska. “We’ve refunded over a half a million dollars worth of tickets yesterday directly to the Visa cards that they were charged on.”

The snowballing dispute between the state and largest ferry union goes back several years. Federal mediation broke down last week.

Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka told reporters on a conference call that the state wants to keep talking.

“We are bargaining in good-faith with IBU, that’s the most that we can do,” she said.

Letters have flown back and forth between state officials and union leadership over whether the union’s demands — and the strike itself — is legal.

That’s because one of the original terms ran counter to a U.S. Supreme Court decision. It’s seen been withdrawn and others amended, but Tshibaka warned IBU members in a letter that workers aren’t protected from unlawful strikes and could lose their jobs.

IBU President Marina Secchitano calls that intimidation.

“I think they’re trying to find a way to not bargain the contract,” she said.

There are a lot of sticking points. But only one of them is about pay.

IBU members don’t get annual cost-of-living increases and their pay has been frozen since the last contract. They want annual 3-percent wage increases for the next three years.

“We’ve had two years of (wage) freezes,” she said. “Which really means 1.8 percent each year for five years. Do you think that’s unreasonable? I don’t.”

So far neither side has set a date for federal mediation to resume. And it’s not immediately clear why that is.

Tshibaka inists that state is ready to negotiate and they’re holding out hope it’ll happen soon so they don’t end up in court.

“We don’t want to be at odds with our state employees and escalate something in court,” she said. “It’s far better to reach resolution in an amicable way, and an alternate dispute resolution way, then in a conflict way, in a court setting.”

In Ketchikan, rain continues to fall. There’s an awning and hot food to keep people going. Around-the-clock picket lines at ferry terminals here and at Juneau’s Auke Bay terminal are slated to continue for the duration of the strike.

“I wish we could have worked things out without coming to a strike,” Ring said. “I’d rather be doing many other things and standing here in the rain — but this is important.”

Private tour operators have indicated they’ll try to offer supplemental marine passenger service.

But for the time being nothing can replace the passenger, freight and vehicle service by Alaska’s state ferry network.

With additional reporting from Maria Dudzak in Ketchikan.