SAN FRANCISCO — The Bay Area was bracing for another BART strike that could again cripple mass transit in the region.
Unions representing the majority of Bay Area Rapid Transit workers issued a 72-hour notice of intent to strike late Thursday. As the clock ticked toward a Sunday midnight deadline, BART General Manager Grace Crunican said the parties continued to negotiate but were "far apart on wages. We're far apart on pensions. We're far apart on medical."
BART trains carry an estimated 400,000 passengers each day, and emergency measures such as additional bus and ferry service and increased reliance on casual carpooling did little to cut the sting of a 41/2-day strike that severely hampered the region in early July.
With a line of local and regional officials behind him, California Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern joined San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in his City Hall office Friday morning to call for an end to the uncertainty.
Lee said that over the last month he had spoken to numerous workers at hotels, coffee shops and restaurants, as well as to owners of small businesses, all of whom conveyed the suffering another strike would cause them.
"I couldn't even get a burrito without confronting someone who asked that we take our stand on behalf of the public," Lee told reporters. "We need an agreement and not a strike in our public transit system. The public ridership … need a voice at this table."
Lee said a strike would hit lower-income families hardest — those trying to get to more than one job who cannot afford the cost of high-priced parking garages. He wanted, he said, "to put a face on the ridership … we need an agreement."
Morgenstern said Gov. Jerry Brown would consider all options to avert a strike, including intervening in the negotiations. It was Morgenstern who helped broker the 30-day contract extension after the July strike ended, and he expressed exasperation that it had not yielded results.
Mediators from state and federal government have been at the table, but the past month has produced little more than acrimony between the two largest worker unions and BART management.
After making a series of concessions in a down economy in recent years, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 have pressed for raises that exceed 20% over three years.
BART management has countered with a proposed 8% raise over four years. But the agency also has asked workers, who earn a median salary of about $80,000, to contribute to their pensions. BART employees currently pay nothing into the pension system. Workers also are being asked to increase their healthcare contribution from the current flat rate of $92 per month.
Union leaders have lambasted management for being at the table for only about half of the last four weeks because of vacations. SEIU chief negotiator Josie Mooney, who listened to the news conference quietly from the rear of the room, held her own media availability outside Lee's office Friday.
Although a gag order prevented her from discussing the details of negotiations, Mooney noted that management late Wednesday came forward with an "encouraging" oral offer — the first since July 2. Although Mooney said she had not yet seen it in writing, she said that it showed movement on "one of the economic areas."
Mooney said that a janitorial station agent who currently earns $42,000 a year would end up making $1,950 less after four years under the original management proposal, because contributions to healthcare and pensions would outweigh raises.
Crunican said that she has been "working on this every day for the last couple of weeks" and acknowledged that the negotiations had been tough. But, she said, BART management has one goal: "I can't emphasize enough for our riders that our desire is to have a contract by Monday. That's Plan A. Plan B is the same thing. Plan C is not to have a contract but to keep working until we have one."
Meanwhile Friday, the Bay Area Council, which represents the region's business interests, released the results of a poll showing strong opposition to a BART worker strike, with a definitive majority saying that workers are fairly compensated and an even larger number saying BART should invest any available funds in upgrading and expanding the aging system.
The poll of 475 residents living in counties directly served by BART found that 70% of respondents opposed a strike and that 92% thought a strike would have a significant effect on the economy. A recent Bay Area Council Economic Institute estimate conservatively put the impact of a BART strike at $73 million a day in lost worker productivity.
On BART trains between San Francisco and Oakland on Friday afternoon, sympathies were decidedly mixed.
Lenny Malepai, a security company manager from Richmond who takes BART to work every day, called the impasse a "Catch-22."
"Yes, they deserve to make more and get good benefits," he said as he left the 19th Street station in Oakland. "And, no, they're disrupting everybody else's life. They should just settle for what they have and tough it out."
Romney reported from San Francisco and La Ganga from Oakland.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun