Bay Area Rapid Transit workers voting on strike

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Bay Area Rapid Transit workers vote Tuesday on whether to allow their union to call a strike if it is unable to reach a new labor deal with management.

The transit agency's two largest unions are holding strike authorization votes throughout the day as the two sides continue negotiations.

Unions representing train drivers, mechanics, station agents and maintenance workers are fighting efforts by BART to get workers to start contributing to their pensions, pay more for health insurance and reduce overtime expenses.

Currently employees pay a flat $92 fee for health insurance no matter the plan or how many people are covered.

The transit agency said it needs to control costs to help pay for new rail cars and other improvements. The unions contend BART has a $125 million operating surplus, and that their members deserve some of it for increased ridership and high service reliability rates.

Employees want a 5 percent annual raise over the next three years. Train operators and station agents are currently paid in the low $60,000 range, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Employees average $16,590 in overtime pay.

BART has offered a 1 percent raise annually over the next four years.

The two sides said they are optimistic a deal can be reached, even though the unions filed a lawsuit Monday against BART seeking an unfair labor practices declaration and charging the transit agency with not bargaining in good faith.

But an affirmative vote Tuesday would allow union management to call a strike. The union does not have to give the agency notice before a strike, but BART's unions have previously given 72 hours public notice.

The current contract expires Sunday night.

About 400,000 people use BART to commute every weekday. The last strike was in 1997 and lasted six days.

Paul Oversier, BART's assistant general manager of operations, told the Bay Area News Group that he hoped a strike is averted.

"We are doing the planning for it, but it's a little early right now," he said.

If service is disrupted, bus service will likely be increased to help bridge the gap.