By Sharon Bernstein
(Reuters) - Contract talks were set to resume on Monday in a last-ditch effort to avert a transit strike that could cripple a rail system serving 400,000 riders a day in the San Francisco Bay Area, as unions and management wrangle over pay and benefits.
A strike could come as early as Tuesday morning if the sides fail to agree on a contract by midnight on Monday, the latest of several missed deadlines. Unionized drivers and other employees at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) have been working without a contract since June 30.
The talks have made some progress, with a new management offer promising a 12 percent pay raise over four years for workers, who management says make an average of $79,000 plus benefits. The unions peg the average worker salary lower, at $64,000 excluding manager pay.
Partly because the pay is considered by many to be generous already -- it is considerably higher than the median U.S. salary of about $50,000 -- the potential strike by more than 2,000 drivers and other BART employees comes against an unusual backdrop of public discomfort with a possible labor action in a typically pro-union region.
"The Bay Area traditionally is a very pro-labor part of California, but this go-round the issue seems to be framed differently," said Larry Gerston, a retired professor of political science at San Jose State University.
"The relatively high salaries of BART employees, the overtime they routinely get in conjunction with lots of sick time, and that's against a backdrop of a public that's just recovering now from a recession where every dollar meant a whole lot."
The unions point out that San Francisco and nearby Oakland are both among the 10 most expensive U.S. cities. A two-bedroom apartment in the area around San Francisco, for example, costs an average of $1,900 per month, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Because the management offer also includes a demand that employees pay a portion of their medical and retirement benefit costs, some of the 12 percent offered in raises would be immediately swallowed up by those contributions.
The unions had initially 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.
Both sides have been asked by a federal mediator helping with the negotiations not to discuss details, but Rick Rice, a spokesman for BART, has said the transit system initially wanted employees to contribute to pensions, starting at 1 percent in the first year and growing to 4 percent in the fourth. The agency also wanted a cap on its healthcare costs, he said.
Bay Area commuters had a taste of the havoc a transit strike could bring last summer, when BART employees walked off the job in early July after their contract first expired.
Melvin Mendoza, 31, had to take three days off from his job as a technical support specialist at a San Francisco law firm during the July action.
"Transportation last time was just a nightmare," said Mendoza, a father of two, whose wife uses the family's only car to get to her job. "The way this is going, it's putting a bad taste in my mouth both on the part of BART and with my concept of the unions."
After the BART strike in July, a court-ordered cooling-off period requested by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown forced employees back to work for an additional two months.
Those two months expired October 10, but the union agreed to keep talking through Sunday night, and now has extended its deadline to Monday night. By law, Brown cannot seek a second court order for another 60-day cooling off period.
BART's strike-contingency plan includes chartering buses capable of carrying 6,000 passengers per day, according to a statement posted on Thursday on its website.
Grace Crunican, BART's general manager, said management had put its final offer in front of union negotiators, who had two weeks to consider it.
"The Bay Area is tired of going to bed at night and not knowing if BART is going to be open," Crunican said. "We need to bring this to a close"
Leaders of the two biggest unions involved in the talks, the Service Employees International Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union, have said they hope to avoid a strike.
The remaining sticking points, Rice told Reuters on Sunday, continued to be salary and benefits. Also at issue, according to SEIU local President Pete Castelli, were work rules, which "include important safety provisions."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)