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BART talks: Federal mediator going home; midnight walkout looms

October 17, 2013|By Lee Romney
  • Federal mediator George Cohen, left, arriving for Bay Area Rapid Transit negotiations.
Federal mediator George Cohen, left, arriving for Bay Area Rapid Transit… (Ben Margot / Associated…)

OAKLAND -- The federal mediator leading efforts to avert a BART strike said Thursday afternoon that he was heading back to Washington, leaving little hope that a midnight walkout could be averted.

George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and an Obama appointee, said his team would be available "when and if the parties request further assistance" but that "mediation services came to an end this afternoon."

The Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system serves 400,000 riders a day. BART workers went on strike for 4 1/2 days in July, until Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a 60-day cooling-off period.

Cohen said that much had been accomplished on key issues but that ultimately it was not enough. "Regrettably, we were not able to bring home the result we all wanted to achieve: a voluntary collective bargaining agreement," he said.

Negotiations could continue before the midnight strike deadline, but it was clear Thursday that agreement was remote. At issue were not the economics of the deal, which the unions had largely accepted. Instead, it came down to work rules that labor said took away workers’ rights.

Service Employees International Union President Roxanne Sanchez came out of the California Department of Transportation's headquarters around 3:45 p.m. Thursday and said the unions believe "that we were, we are, extremely near to an agreement on the economic proposals."

She said labor "met the BART board and general manager 100%" on pension and health benefit contributions and were very close on salaries. Sticking points involved safety proposals and certain work rules. Management, meanwhile, said they allowed flexibility essential to moving forward with new technologies.

Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 -- the union negotiating alongside SEIU Local 1021 -- said she was "deeply disappointed" to come forth with bad news. She noted that she and others had been attempting to close the deal for 33 hours straight.  "We came here yesterday at 10 in the morning. We have not left," she said. "You see us in the same clothes, a little messed up, a little hungry, a lot tired."

Then she lashed out at management, saying the strike was the result of its "absolute arrogance.... At the last minute, they threw in a management rights clause to take away our rights as workers."

"This continues as an unfair labor practices strike; this is not an economic strike," she said, saying management has acted "so cavalier with the riding public.... We did everything we could to get this deal done. We did the fight. We stood ATU strong and we are bitterly disappointed. Unfortunately, yes, we are on strike as of midnight, but it is not a strike any of us ever wanted."

BART General Manager Grace Crunican offered a different view, calling the negotiation "all about the long-term sustainability for BART" and plans by the board to invest in the infrastructure of the 4-decade-old system "so it doesn’t turn into a system that deteriorates."

"It’s not management that asked for a strike, it’s the unions," she said, noting that management is available to continue negotiating.

She laid out the terms of the economic package: a 12% raise over four years, along with a 4% contribution to pensions and 9.5% to healthcare benefits. Those had not changed since BART placed a "last, best and final" offer on the table Sunday, triggering another impasse.

She said, the contract offer also includes "a great deal of rules and regulations that will help maintain the balance of management rights at BART so we are better able to manage the system.... These were work rules that were essential to maintaining the efficiency of the agency. The unions decided they wanted to take the money that was on the table and not the work rules we had put on the table."


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Twitter: @leeromney

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