BART board expected to reject contract, fueling fears of third strike

Gabrielle Lurie/Special to The S.F. ExaminerA broken section of rail that led to major BART delays could be from a batch of bad rail

Gabrielle Lurie/Special to The S.F. ExaminerA broken section of rail that led to major BART delays could be from a batch of bad rail

BART and its unions are likely heading back to the bargaining table, with a majority of the transit agency’s elected board of directors prepared to reject the contract that took almost seven months — and two strikes — to produce.

That means a third BART strike is a possibility, once the board Thursday votes down a hard-won package of raises, modified benefits and changes to work rules that also includes a disputed provision for six weeks of annual paid leave for family emergencies

BART says the provision was included in error. The unions say the agency signed off on it in July and called on the board to honor the agreement, which appears unlikely.

“I’m pretty confident there’s a majority ready to reject this contract,” said board Vice President Joel Keller, who lamented the “sloppy end to a hard negotiation.”

BART has a $1.5 billion annual budget and spends about $401 million a year on employee wages and benefits, a figure projected to increase by $67 million over the course of the four-year contract.

Under federal law, employees are allowed to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with pregnancies or serious medical emergencies. Currently, about 500 employees take an average of 4.3 weeks of medical leave a year, according to BART. If that leave were paid, BART says it would cost it an additional $4.7 million a year.

Representatives with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents mechanics and custodians, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents station agents and train operators, said this week that BART is experiencing “buyer’s remorse” in pushing for labor negotiations to resume.

There has been no contact between the unions and BART to set up new negotiations, Local 1021 political director Chris Daly said Wednesday.

It’s unclear how the medical leave provision ended up in the tentative agreement that was signed by BART management in late October — and praised by General Manager Grace Crunican as a “fair deal.” Both unions overwhelmingly approved the contract as well.

In an email sent Nov. 7, BART attorney Vicki Nuetzel told union officials the provision was included “in error.”

“That was not in the contract we gave them [on Oct. 17] prior to the strike,” said Thomas P. Hock, who was paid $399,000 to be the BART’s chief labor negotiator during the strike. “I have no idea how that got in there.”

The deal to end BART’s second strike came Oct. 21, two days after a BART train driven by a management employee struck and killed an experienced nonstriking worker and a contractor.

Neither Hock nor Bruce Conhain — whose hiring as BART’s new chief negotiator could become official today — were present for last weekend’s negotiation sessions.

BART is investigating how the error was made, but must in the meantime “rebuild its brand” with the public, which will be asked to approve a bond measure or sales tax increase to pay for new trains and other system improvements.

“We need to move forward with labor and work together,” Keller said. “And the first step is rejecting this contract.”

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