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Transit Workers Strike in Bay Area; Commute Dreaded

September 08, 1997|From Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Employees of the Bay Area's commuter train system walked off the job early Sunday in a pay dispute, a strike that could strand thousands when the work week begins today.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit's 56 trains were idled, forcing about 65,000 weekend riders to find other transportation Sunday.

But commuter headaches were expected to peak this morning, as 275,000 weekday riders could be forced onto roadways.

"Start planning now for how you're going to get to where you need to get to Monday morning," BART spokesman Mike Healy said.

Healy said operating the system without the workers was not an option.

The railway's 2,600 train operators, station agents, mechanics and other workers--among the highest paid in the nation--walked out at 12:01 a.m Sunday. They are demanding a 17% wage increase over three years.

Negotiations resumed later Sunday between BART management and unions representing the workers but broke off about three hours later. No new talks were scheduled.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission urged weekday riders to use carpools, take buses or ferries. The agency also suggested that employees with modems and sympathetic bosses be allowed to work from home, at least during peak driving times.

Extra toll takers will be staffed at the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to accommodate increased traffic.

Some riders said they may skip work. Ayden Bremner, who lives in Berkeley, said she planned to ride on the back of a friend's motorcycle to get to San Francisco.

"I don't have a car, so I depend on BART to get to the city," said Bremner, 19. "It's good, it's cheap and people need it. It's necessary."

Richard Eng, a surgical technician who rides BART three times a week from Berkeley to San Francisco, had little sympathy for striking employees.

"BART was built partly on public funds," said Eng, 31. "If they're stupid enough to give up their jobs, then that's too bad."

Members of BART's two largest unions voted last week to reject an offer that would have raised their salaries 3% a year for three years. Union members reportedly are seeking annual raises of 6.5%, 5.5% and 5% over the three years of a new contract.

The unions also want to abolish a two-tier wage system, in which newer employees are paid different amounts for the same job.

The unions made a counteroffer Friday that would have raised the salary increase, though negotiators did not disclose by how much. Healy, the BART spokesman, called the union proposal "ludicrous" and said management would not budge any further.

"This is our final offer," Healy said. "We're at the end of our financial ability to do anything more."

BART maintenance workers currently earn a base wage of $48,000 and train operators and station agents make $40,900.

Bill Lloyd, a negotiator for Service Employees International Union Local 790, said the unions refused to accept management's "last, best offer."

"We are not getting paid enough," Lloyd said. "We are workers. We are suffering just like tomorrow when commuters trying to get into San Francisco, they'll suffer. So we're all suffering together."

Workers, who picketed next to BART headquarters in Oakland after the strike began, said their demands were not unreasonable.

"We're all committed to this," said Diane Lievsay, a train operator the past 7 1/2 years. "It's time that BART listened to the workers and treated us fairly. We're tired of them holding us hostage and holding the Bay Area hostage."

BART's last protracted strike was for three months in 1979 when ridership on the 93-mile system was about half its current level.

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