BART negotiations need to get serious to avoid another strike

BART trains will continue to run for the next two months under a court-ordered cooling-off period. But now is the time for the stalled BART labor talks to heat up.

Both sides involved in the prolonged negotiations need to start serious negotiations to settle their contentious contract dispute long before this two-month reprieve comes to a close.

Two of BART's largest unions, which represent workers including train operators and station agents, have been locked in contract talks with the transit agency for months. The Fourth of July holiday week was marred by a 4½-day shutdown, and additional work stoppages were threatened twice in recent weeks before Gov. Jerry Brown and the judicial branch finally intervened with Sunday's court-ordered cooling-off period.

During the 60 days in which the court ordered the unions not to strike or even threaten one, both sides have plenty of time to resolve their stubborn disagreements. But as this cooling-off period starts, the parties seem more inclined toward merely arguing between now and Oct. 10. The two sides are so far apart that they cannot even agree how far apart they are.

Just last week, a panel convened by the governor heard arguments from BART and its unions. BART pegged the financial difference between its proposal and the unions' at $100 million. But the unions said the two sides are only about $56 million apart. Even more troublesome was that the two sides even disagreed about how much the average employee earns — BART said it is $79,500 and the unions said it is about $66,000.

Stuck on the sidelines of this quarrel are the hundreds of thousands of Bay Area commuters who rely on BART for daily transportation. The current trajectory of the negotiations points to yet another work stoppage, which would be a grave disservice to all of these loyal customers.

Obtaining a true picture of what is being negotiated is perhaps the first step toward the eventual resolution. BART released a new proposal Saturday, but the unions say the agency is presenting distorted numbers to the public. Since the talks occur behind closed doors — there are strict rules about what can and cannot be made public during collective bargaining — it is difficult for outsiders to determine where the truth lies.

It would be foolhardy to ask for 100 percent transparency in these talks since the union rank-and-file needs to approve any agreements that are reached. But perhaps the two sides could start with a basic agreement over what needs to be accomplished. The major sticking points throughout the talks have been pay raises, employee contributions toward health care and pensions, and worker safety issues.

Both sides will clearly have to budge some to avert another shutdown. The governor was right to delay the strike to keep the trains rolling. Now he should pressure the two sides to agree to some form of mediation so that both sides can settle on the actual amount of their financial separation.

Without such intervention, 60 days of talking in circles and over each other's heads would likely be fruitless and lead to another strike.

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