BART trains and traffic flow as usual at a station in Oakland. The Bay Area… (Laura A. Oda / Associated…)
SAN FRANCISCO — After a brief but extraordinary weekend hearing, a San Francisco Superior Court judge Sunday morning ordered a 60-day cooling-off period to prevent a second damaging transit strike in the Bay Area.
Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow said he had no choice but to grant the strike reprieve, which Gov. Jerry Brown requested Friday afternoon.
"If the court finds that the threatened strike will significantly disrupt transportation services and endanger the public's health, safety or welfare," Karnow said from the bench in Department 304, "I have to issue the order."
But Karnow also said Sunday that the hearing — described by court officials as the first public proceeding in a San Francisco court on a weekend in recent memory — "has nothing at all to do with the merits of the dispute."
The Bay Area Rapid Transit district and its three largest unions have been negotiating a new contract for the last several months with no success. A 41/2-day strike in July left BART's 400,000 weekday riders in desperate straits.
A week ago, as another strike loomed, BART officials asked the governor to step in, and Brown convened a three-member board to investigate the seeming impasse. The investigation was to last seven days, during which BART's union members could not walk off the job.
During a daylong hearing in Oakland on Wednesday, BART management and its unions — SEIU Local 1021, Amalgamated Transit Union 1555 and AFSCME Local 3993 — could not even agree on how far apart they were in negotiating wages, healthcare and pension costs.
The unions told Brown's panel that the two sides' proposals were $56 million apart. BART officials said the gap was $62 million.
The panel made no recommendation to the governor, but it did decide that "a strike will cause significant harm." So Brown asked the court to prevent a strike for another two months in hopes that the two sides could come to agreement.
"I urge all parties to think of the public and resolve this matter without delay," Brown said in a statement Friday, "but if there's no resolution by Sunday, I will seek a 60-day cooling-off period."
Although BART and its unions bargained until late Saturday night, not much progress was made, and the hearing began at 9 a.m. Sunday. Negotiations resumed at 1 p.m., less than three hours after Karnow ruled. But by Sunday evening, management had declared them stalled.
"The Court finds that a threatened or actual strike or lockout, if permitted to occur or continue, will significantly disrupt public transportation services and endanger the public's health, safety or welfare," Karnow wrote, adding that it appears "to the satisfaction of the Court that this is a proper case for granting an injunction."
Although the cooling-off period came at the request of BART officials, attorneys for the three unions did not object to the action in court Sunday.
Peter Saltzman, representing ATU 1555, told the judge that the 60 days "will afford the parties ample opportunity to reach a settlement."
Attorneys representing the governor and the unions made little or no comment on the decision after the hearing ended.
But Zakhary Mallett, an elected member of BART's board of directors, hailed the outcome and said the cooling-off period will not be allowed to hinder the momentum of negotiations.
"I will continue to pressure my staff and our unions to continue to negotiate," Mallett said, adding that another strike like the one in early July "would have had grave effects on the riding and driving public."
"We are no longer in the midst of summer vacation time," he said. "The impact would have been much greater than the impact of Fourth of July week."
In a written statement issued Sunday afternoon, San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee said that he applauded the governor for "taking the steps necessary so that Bay Area residents will not endure another unbearable BART strike."
Lee urged both sides to continue to negotiate, saying that another strike would hurt not only the region's economy but also its working families. Lee added that "a BART strike is not just inconvenient anymore, but will cause undue hardship for many."