Negotiators back to table as BART strike looms 

click to enlarge Dwight McElroy
  • Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
  • Union leader Dwight McElroy, center, conducts interview alongside fellow union members in Oakland Friday.

With a Sunday night deadline approaching, negotiations between the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit and two of its largest unions have intensified with a possible strike at stake.

As the parties went back to the bargaining table Saturday in Oakland for anticipated around-the-clock sessions, both sides described the talks as tense and said they're far apart on key sticking points including salary, pensions, health care and safety.

About 400,000 riders use BART, the nation's fifth largest rail system, on weekdays. A strike that could start as early as Monday would be chaotic for those commuters and affect every mode of transportation, clogging highways and bridges throughout the Bay Area.

On Friday, a mediator exchanged proposals between the parties who did not meet. BART said it has agreed to at least a handful of minor proposals from members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 1021 and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), Local 1555, but not on the major issues.

"There hasn't been any real progress," ATU local president Antonette Bryant said Saturday. "We need to meet face-to-face. Nobody wants a strike. We are prepared to spend the night - a couple of nights - in order to finally reach a deal."

The unions want a 5 percent annual raise over the next three years. Currently, train operators and station agents are paid in the low $60,000 range. Employees average $16,590 in overtime annually and pay a flat $92 monthly fee for health insurance.

Meanwhile, BART has offered a 1 percent raise annually over the next four years and for employees to contribute to their pensions.

The unions' current contract expires at midnight Sunday. On Friday, the ATU asked California Gov. Jerry Brown to issue a 60-day "cooling off" period if no deal can be reached by Sunday's deadline, but the SEIU and BART officials have urged Brown not to issue such an order.

The governor's office has declined to comment.

BART spokesman Rick Rice said Saturday that while talks remain stagnant after the agency offered employees a new contract proposal on Thursday, he expected long discussions right down to Sunday's deadline.

"Negotiations are frustrating," Rice said. "But, we'll be here, no matter long it takes. We're committed to work this out."

BART's last strike lasted six days in 1997. On Friday, other area transit agencies urged commuters to consider carpooling, taking buses or ferries, working from home and, if they must drive to work, to leave earlier or even later than usual.

"The bottom line is that a BART strike will be an absolute nightmare for everyone," said Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy organization. "Our transportation system simply does not have the capacity to absorb the more than 400,000 BART riders who will be left at the station. There will be serious pain."

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