AP Photo/Ben MargotGrace Crunican

Strike two: Breakdown in labor talks halts BART trains for second time this year

A rollercoaster week of strike threats, last-second extensions, progress and a public’s patience pushed past its limit came crashing to a halt late Thursday: BART is on strike – again.

The ongoing labor woes between the transit agency and its unions made the Bay Area’s worst transit nightmare a reality this morning. Hundreds of thousands of daily riders will have to seek other commute options as union workers for the nation’s fifth-largest transit system made their second strike of the year official shortly after midnight Thursday.

Talks with management over pay, benefits and work rules ended in the same place they have been for more than six months: nowhere.

It’s not known how long workers will be out on strike, but observers fear it could be longer than the 4½ days BART trains were halted in July.

A September 1997 strike lasted six days.

This week, each side pointed to the other as the reason why the marathon of high-pressure talks at the Caltrans building in downtown Oakland – including a more than 28-hour continuous bargaining session that began at 10 a.m. Wednesday – failed to produce a new labor contract.

“We were close on two separate occasions to closing this deal,” said Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents BART’s station agents and train operators.

BART has a $1.6 billion annual budget, about $400 million of which is spent on labor. It’s seeking savings from its workers to help pay for system upgrades like new railway cars and a new train control center.

“We are not going to agree to something we can’t afford,” said BART General Manager Grace Crunican. “We have to protect the aging system for our workers and the public.”

The bill for the new upgrades will run in the billions. Taxpayers and riders will be asked to foot most of the bill.

Throughout bargaining, unions had pushed for a three-year contract, while BART proposed four-year contracts like the one signed in 2009.

The unions’ last offer, issued to BART on Thursday morning, equated to a 15.88 percent wage increase over four years coupled with increased employee contributions to health care and retirement benefits, according to BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

BART’s “last, best and final offer” issued Thursday – identical to its Sunday offer – offered a 12 percent pay increase over that same time frame.

The Sunday offer was rejected Monday by the unions, which responded by calling a strike for Tuesday, only to be talked off the ledge by federal mediator George Cohen.

The two sides had come closest to agreeing on economics – and had come to informal terms on pension and health care costs – but the strike came back into play Thursday when they could not come to terms on work rules, voluminous agreements between management and workers that dictate down to precise detail how jobs are carried out.

Unions offered to send the troublesome work rules to an arbitrator, but BART rejected the third-party settlement unless everything – economics and work rules – were arbitrated.

That meant whatever “progress” was made during the week – including one bargaining session that ran past 5 a.m., along with the Wednesday-Thursday marathon – evaporated.

“They came tantalizingly close,” said John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University who has closely watched negotiations and was on hand Thursday in Oakland. “There was almost nothing separating them – certainly nothing worth causing the disruption of a strike. … It’s so remarkable that this happened [Thursday].”

Union workers were expected to start walking picket lines at East Bay stations beginning at 4 a.m. today.

The work stoppage comes despite the presence of the federal government’s top mediator – who has brokered labor deals for air traffic controllers, opera singers, and NBA and NFL players.

“Our mediation process has come to an end,” Cohen said Thursday as his team left negotiations.

Alternate modes of transit during strike

Bay Area commuters will have to find alternate ways to get to and from work and other destinations today as BART workers are on strike for the second time this year.

The transit agency is providing a limited number of free roundtrip charter buses starting at 5 a.m. at nine East Bay stations — El Cerrito del Norte, West Oakland, Concord, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Dublin/Pleasanton, San Leandro, Hayward and Fremont.

BART officials said there will be five to 15 buses at each station.

The buses will drop off passengers at San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal.

For the return trip, riders can board buses between 3 and 7 p.m. at the terminal. Those buses will go to West Oakland, where transfers can be made to other buses heading to various East Bay destinations.

If the strike continues into the weekend, BART will provide three buses at the same nine East Bay stations and offer limited roundtrip direct bus service into San Francisco in the mornings and evenings.

Most service on AC Transit buses will be on a regular schedule, however there will be additional trans-Bay buses that will provide additional seats.

Muni service in San Francisco will be beefed up on “high-priority corridors” such as the 14-Mission bus line, buses that run near the Fourth and King streets Caltrain station, lines in downtown and the J-Church light-rail line.

San Francisco Bay Ferry will operate 12 boats instead of its usual eight. Golden Gate Ferry is running on a regular schedule from Marin County into San Francisco.

At San Francisco International Airport, free shuttles will take passengers between the SFO BART station and the Millbrae Caltrain station and the San Francisco Bay Ferry dock in South San Francisco.

AC Transit buses will connect passengers between the Coliseum/Oakland Airport BART station and Oakland International Airport. There will not be the usual AirBART bus shuttle available during the strike.

SamTrans buses will stop at all San Mateo County BART stations, while Caltrain service will stay on a normal schedule.

— Bay City News

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