San Francisco-area transit strike postponed, talks go on

By Laila Kearney SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A strike that could cripple the San Francisco Bay Area's commuter rail system has been averted for the weekend as contract talks continue, but workers could walk off the job on Monday if a deal is not reached, union leaders said. The announcement that talks would continue through the weekend came late on Thursday, just minutes before the end of a 60-day cooling off period obtained in court by California Governor Jerry Brown that had blocked a strike on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which serves 400,000 daily riders. Talks resumed on Friday morning, BART spokesman Rick Rice and union spokeswoman Cecille Isidro said in separate statements. BART trains were running on schedule while the talks continued. "We remain hopeful that our good-faith effort will be met by their good-faith effort," said Roxanne Sanchez, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021. "If there is no agreement by Sunday (midnight), there would be a strike." Pay and pension benefits are main issues in the talks, said John Logan, director of San Francisco State University's labor and employment studies program who has sat in on negotiations on the side of the union. Leaders of the two biggest unions involved in the talks, the SEIU and the Amalgamated Transit Union, which together represent more than 2,000 BART workers, have said they hope to avoid a strike. BART and the unions are tens of millions of dollars apart in their negotiations, Tom Hock, BART's chief negotiator, told reporters on Thursday. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 negotiator Chris Finn put the gap at less than $21 million. On Monday, a federal mediator assigned to the negotiations barred the two sides from releasing details on the contract talks, Isidro said. PENSIONS CONTRIBUTION In its last known proposal, BART offered employees a 10.25 percent raise over four years, Rice said, adding that "there has been movement" since the last publicly made proposal. BART had also sought to have employees contribute to their pensions, starting at 1 percent in the first year of the contract and growing to 4 percent in the fourth year, he said. The agency wanted a cap on its health plan costs, he said. The unions had asked for a three-year contract, with a 3.75 percent raise in each of the first two years and a 4 percent raise in the last year. The unions say they are ready to have workers contribute more to their healthcare. BART management has said the average employee gets an annual salary of $79,500 plus $50,800 in benefits, and it is concerned the cost of benefits will continue to climb after increasing by nearly 200 percent in 10 years. The unions peg the average worker salary, excluding managers, lower at $64,000. A strike on Monday would mark the second time this year that a job action has shut down the BART system. A strike in July lasted four and a half days, creating severe traffic problems and forcing commuters to miss work or crowd onto a limited number of other public transportation options. BART's strike-contingency plan includes chartering buses with the capability of carrying 6,000 passengers per day, according to a statement posted on Thursday on its website. Brown, a Democrat, cannot seek a court order for another 60-day cooling off period in these labor talks because under state law he is only allowed to obtain the one such period, said Brown's spokesman Evan Westrup. (Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)