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After talks break down, Bay Area appears headed toward transit strike

Breakdown between BART and its two main unions comes after 33 hours of continuous talks and a week of stops and starts.

October 17, 2013|By Lee Romney
  • Trains were running for Zach Saltzman, waiting at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station for one to San Francisco, earlier in the week.
Trains were running for Zach Saltzman, waiting at the El Cerrito del Norte… (Dan Honda / MCT )

OAKLAND — After a week of marathon negotiations to avert a Bay Area rail strike that pulled in state lawmakers and federal mediators, it appeared late Thursday that the region was headed for a work stoppage that would affect hundreds of thousands of daily commuters.

The breakdown between Bay Area Rapid Transit and its two main unions came after 33 hours of continuous talks and a week of stops and starts. George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, emerged from the California Department of Transportation headquarters here to say his team was flying back to Washington, D.C.

"Regrettably, we were not able to bring home the result we all wanted to achieve, a voluntary collective bargaining agreement," said Cohen, who by all accounts helped bridge many gaps between the parties.

Leaders of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 expressed deep disappointment — and pointed a finger at management.

They had made concessions and come to agreement on numerous issues — including health benefit and pension contributions — since talks resumed in earnest last Friday, they said. And Thursday afternoon, they had unsuccessfully sought to have the unresolved matters brought before an arbitrator.

"We could lose … but we'd rather take the risk than shut down the Bay Area," said SEIU Local 1021 President Roxanne Sanchez. "The employer said, 'No.'"

At her own news conference, BART General Manager Grace Crunican said management had offered a good deal to workers and she urged unions to take it to a vote.

"It's not management that called for a strike, it's the unions," she said.

With that, the Bay Area appeared headed for commuter meltdown.

"It's very frustrating, it's very dismaying," said Rufus Jeffris, spokesman for the Bay Area Council, a regional business organization that calculated the costs of BART's 41/2 -day strike in July at $73 million per day. Gov. Jerry Brown later stepped in to seek a 60-day cooling-off period.

"I think we echo the feelings of a lot of Bay Area residents who were hoping that the recent negotiations and the progress they seemed to be making would produce a settlement and avoid a strike," Jeffris said. "To get this close and see it go up in smoke is really disheartening. It's going to be catastrophic."

Indeed, so optimistic were local leaders after Cohen and his team arrived that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee — who had postponed a trip to China — ended up leaving two days ago.

Jeffris said his organization is encouraging those who can telecommute to do so, and those who cannot to "take some vacation time to avoid what's going to be a traffic Armageddon out there."

There are plans for enhanced bus and ferry service and expanded carpool hours, and BART will run free round-trip buses to San Francisco, but those measures are not expected to come close to satisfying demand.

John Logan, director and professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, sat in on negotiations this week and said the two sides had been moving "very close together" during a 33-hour session that began Wednesday. There was "very little separating the sides, very small amounts of money."

On work rules, an umbrella term that includes workers' right to reject certain changes in procedures as well as scheduling and other matters, Logan said the unions had also compromised. But he said that when they proposed to management that outstanding issues go to expedited arbitration, BART returned to the "last best and final" offer it had proposed Sunday.

Logan speculated that Brown might call a special session of the Legislature to seek legislation ordering workers back — and sending the matter to binding arbitration. Lawmakers would have to approve such a measure. However, a prolonged strike of that length could set the stage for introduction of more sweeping legislation to outright ban transit strikes — although passage might be unlikely.

As for Crunican, she said the path ahead could be long.

"We need a contract at some point in time," she said. "This isn't the end of it, this is the beginning, so there is no end right now."

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