BUSINESS

Unions threaten Bay Area Rapid Transit strike at midnight after impasse, call for arbitration

10/17/2013 11:14 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
OAKLAND, Calif. - Union workers are threatening to go on strike at midnight unless San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit agrees to enter arbitration after a marathon negotiating session with management and its two largest unions came to a halt Thursday when both sides couldn't agree on a remaining set of issues.

Roxanne Sanchez, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, said BART and its two largest unions have "come extremely close" to agreement on economic, health care and pension issues. However, she said the parties remained apart on work rule issues.

She said the unions suggested taking the remaining issues to arbitration but management refused. Workers would walk off the job at midnight unless BART officials change their mind, Sanchez said.

BART General Manager Grace Crunican said the rules that the agency wanted to include in the contract were necessary to help managers run the system efficiently and control costs. She urged the union leaders to let their members vote on management's offer by Oct. 27.

"We hope to continue to work with the unions, but what's critical at this juncture is that the unions take this offer to a vote," Crunican said.

The impasse came after a marathon negotiating session that ran well into a second day Thursday as both sides worked toward a deal to end the monthslong contract dispute that has left many riders under the repeated threat of a commute-crippling strike.

A team of federal mediators who participated in the talks for four days said the parties succeeded in agreeing to a number of significant items, but were ultimately "unable to bridge the gap" on the work rules.

"This is a classic example of a labour dispute that has implications far beyond that of the individual parties," George Cohen, who led the team, said. "Unfortunately, regrettably, we were not able to bring home the result we all want to achieve, which is a voluntary collective bargaining agreement."

Commuters have endured seven strike deadlines, sometimes staying up past midnight waiting to hear if the trains will run in the morning.

The contentious labour talks between BART and unions have dragged on for six months — a period that has seen a chaotic dayslong strike, a cooling-off period and frazzled commuters wondering if they'll wake up to find the trains aren't running.

BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said the agency has been flooded with calls and emails this week from commuters frustrated that they haven't been given earlier notices.

About 400,000 riders take BART every weekday on the nation's fifth-largest commuter rail system.

The key issues during most of the talks had been salaries and worker contributions to their health and pension plans.

Talks began in April, three months before the June 30 contract expirations, but both sides were far apart. The unions initially asked for 23.2 per cent in raises over three years. BART countered with a four-year contract with 1 per cent raises contingent on the agency meeting economic goals.

The unions contended that members made $100 million in concessions when they agreed to a deal in 2009 as BART faced a $310 million deficit. And they said they wanted their members to get their share of a $125 million operating surplus produced through increased ridership.

The unions said one of the work rules that BART wanted to change was employees' fixed work schedules. Mark Mosher, a communications consultant with SEIU Local 1021, said some workers work 4-day, 10-hour shifts while others work 5-day, 8-hour shifts.

"Some want longer work hours and shorter shifts due to child care, for some, it's the only way a two-earner family can organize child care, but BART wants to schedule people whenever they want," Mosher said.

But the transit agency countered that it needed to control costs to help pay for new rail cars and other improvements.

"We are not going to agree to something we can't afford. We have to protect the aging system for our workers and the public," Crunican said.

On Sunday, she presented a "last, best and final offer" that includes an annual 3 per cent raise over four years and requires workers to contribute 4 per cent toward their pension and 9.5 per cent toward medical benefits.

The value of BART's proposal is $57 million, BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said.

Workers represented by the two unions, including more than 2,300 mechanics, custodians, station agents, train operators and clerical staff, now average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually, the transit agency said. BART workers currently pay $92 a month for health care and contribute nothing toward their pensions.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown has stepped in to at least delay a strike by workers for regional bus system Alameda-Contra Costa Transit. Such a strike would leave commuters stranded without a mass transit alternative if a BART strike is underway simultaneously.

Brown appointed a three-member panel to investigate a strike notice by union workers. The move effectively prevents a strike, which had been threatened for Thursday, for a week. A 60-day cooling-off period in the contract dispute could then be imposed.