(07-01) 00:54 PDT Oakland – The first BART strike since 1997 is now under way.
The final trains of the Sunday shift will finish up their runs. But there will be no service Monday, with the transit system’s workers and management agreeing only on the fact that the two sides remain far apart in contract negotiations. Instead of reporting to work, BART union employees will carry picket signs and distribute leaflets at most stations.
“Regretfully, we have to let the riding public know that we will not be operating” Monday said Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents 945 train operators and station agents. “Our members aren’t interested in disrupting the Bay Area, but management has put us in a position where we have no choice.”
Management’s position was different, that labor had shown no interest Sunday evening in working to continue to settle the remaining contract issues.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed. We feel we have a very good offer on the table,” aid Rick Rice, a BART spokesman. He also said “the mediator will be reaching out to all of us to resume the talks as soon as possible,” although it does not appear any talks are scheduled for Monday.
At midnight, a dozen members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 filed out of the union’s offices near the Oakland waterfront to make it official that no last-minute reprieve for commuters was at hand.
“There are times when you have to make a statement, and that’s what we’re doing now,” said Des Patten, president of the BART professional chapter of SEIU. “BART management needs to offer us something new to consider.”
Talks between the two sides came to an end shortly before 8:30 p.m., when union negotiators left the state office building in Oakland that had been opened for the day as a neutral meeting ground.
BART officials said they had doubled their salary offer – to 8 percent over four years – but that the unions had reduced their proposal for a 23.2 percent raise by one-half percent. They said it was the unions’ turn to make a proposal.
“It’s not even dark yet and the unions left for the evening,” said Alicia Trost, BART spokeswoman. “BART negotiations have a tradition of going until midnight – even past midnight. We apologize to our riders. … We’re sorry they’ve been dragged into this labor mess.”
Commuters Monday now must puzzle out how they will get around the Bay Area without BART, which carries 400,000 riders on an average weekday.
San Francisco Bay Ferry will add boats from the East Bay, and AC Transit, in the midst of its own labor troubles, will run extra buses. AC’s workers were planning to bargain until midnight. If talks failed, they said, the soonest they would strike would be Tuesday morning.
As the midnight deadline neared, one of the top union negotiators was asked if there had been any final effort by decision makers to avert a strike that is likely to leave commuters fuming at both sides.
“We have heard from some elected officials who called us in the last few hours, asking if there is anything they could do,” said Josie Mooney, a chief negotiator for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents 1,433 mechanics, maintenance workers and staff. “We said yes. Have BART management send us a new offer.”
Earlier in the day, union negotiators had returned to the bargaining table after walking away a day earlier. Some carried suitcases or food and appeared to be prepared for a long night.
“We are hoping the district brings us something substantive that we feel we can take to our members so we can settle this,” said Bryant.
Frustrated by a lack of progress, union bargaining teams had previously walked away from negotiations in the Kaiser Center, which houses BART headquarters, on Saturday afternoon, saying a strike was all but inevitable.
After they left the talks, BART bargainers sent a new proposal by e-mail. But union officials said they were unimpressed and weren’t inclined to return to bargaining.
Talks resumed only after state Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern called SEIU representatives to say that Gov. Jerry Brown wanted them to return to the table. Brown also told ATU officials he was rejecting their request for a 60-day cooling-off period that would delay a strike.
The key issues in the labor dispute are economic: wages, contributions to pensions and health insurance payments. Currently, BART employees, union and nonunion, make no contribution to their state pension plans and pay $92 a month for health insurance.
Rice said BART’s latest proposal offers a 2 percent annual raise, up from its initial proposal of 1 percent. The latest proposal, compared with the previous proposal, also reduces the amount that the district would require employees to begin contributing to pensions and to pay toward health insurance premiums. Rice said the proposal would mean a raise for every union employee.
Union officials disagreed. Part of the raise BART offered in the latest proposal is contingent, they said, on factors ranging from ambitious ridership increases and sales tax revenues to reductions in the number of employees seeking Family Medical Leave Act absences. Many employees would lose money every year, union officials said.
“On the surface it looks like a raise,” Bryant said. “But it’s not really a raise. It certainly leaves us in the red – 3 to 4 percent lower than our wages now.”
BART says it wants to reach a fair deal with its employees but that it needs relief from skyrocketing pension and health benefits. It says that while its operating budget generates a surplus, it needs to reinvest that money in modernizing and improving the system. To accommodate that growth, it needs to raise billions to pay for its share of 1,000 new railcars, a new train maintenance facility and a new train control system.
Ridership has risen
The unions say their employees are responsible for keeping the aging system running well enough to transport more passengers than planners envisioned even four years ago.
Unionized workers have gone without raises for five years, and four years ago made $100 million in concessions to help the district when the economy was struggling. Now that BART is booming and making a surplus, it should share that with its workers, the unions say.
A typical BART station agent or train operator is paid a salary in the low $60,000 range. According to BART, they also make an average of $11,000 to $16,000 annually in overtime. The value of their benefits, the district estimates, averages an additional $50,000 a year.