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Big Labor vs. Delta Queen

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By Dimitri Vassilaros
Monday, Aug. 13, 2007

Big Labor could sink the Delta Queen. If it does, a ripple effect will wash over the Pittsburgh economy. Local congressmen don't seem to care, even though the vessel will dock in the 'Burgh about a dozen times in 2008.

Built in 1926, the Delta Queen is a U.S. National Historic Landmark and the last original paddle-wheel steamboat offering overnight cruises. Her 19th-century charm includes 87 staterooms with period furnishings.

It's Americana with a calliope.

Please go online to see what the Seafarers International Union and its congressional cabin boys want to scuttle.

The vessel has a steel hull, sprinklers and other fire-prevention and -suppression features, says Joseph G. McCarthy, vice president and general counsel of owner Ambassadors International Inc.

It also has a wooden superstructure. The U.S. Coast Guard has rules prohibiting wooden ones. But Congress had been granting exemptions for more than 40 years. Until now.

"If we didn't believe she was safe, we would not have sought the extension," says Mr. McCarthy. The current one expires in November 2008.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure blames its unanimous decision on safety concerns. U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, is a committee member. The union never approached him, said Mr. Altmire's spokeswoman. He had concerns about the safety although he does understand the historical significance, she said.

"Since the Coast Guard has determined that the fire risk associated with the Delta Queen carrying overnight passengers is too great, I have no intention of introducing legislation to provide a new exemption for the Delta Queen," said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. The Queen docks in his district.

Said a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, "Until that safety risk is mitigated, the Coast Guard has determined the ship should not carry overnight passengers and the congressman would defer to the Coast Guard's expertise in this matter."

"The committee did not have an issue with the Delta Queen being a wooden superstructure," says Jeff Urbanchuk, spokesman for Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg. Mr. Shuster is on the transportation committee.

A union dispute is the primary issue, Mr. Urbanchuk says.

The Democrats oppose the waiver because current ownership did not accept the collective bargaining contract when it bought the historic asset. Unfortunately, the Republicans did not have the votes to successfully introduce an amendment to grant another exemption, Urbanchuk says.

"Nonsense" was the only comment from the Seafarers International Union spokesman, Jordan Biscardo. He grew up in Pittsburgh's Duquesne Heights neighborhood.

Reps. Altmire, Doyle and Murphy should reconsider. VisitPittsburgh, Allegheny County's official tourism agency, says "it will certainly be a loss to Pittsburgh, indeed the country, should the beautiful Delta Queen stop sailing."

The Port of Pittsburgh Commission would be very supportive, says Executive Director James McCarville. As probably would other Pittsburghers who provide food, fuel, dry cleaning, flowers, buses and cabs for the Delta Queen.

"Plus, people just like that boat," Mr. McCarville says. "It's a very charming vessel."

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