By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Unions representing transit workers in the San Francisco area agreed on Sunday night to postpone for 24 hours a planned walkout that could cripple a rail system serving 400,000 riders a day.
More than 2,000 drivers and other employees at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) have been working without a contract since June 30 and two unions representing them had said they would walk off the job at midnight on Sunday if no deal was reached.
But just 90 minutes before that deadline, union representatives emerged from BART headquarters in Oakland to say that they were prepared to negotiate for one more day.
Grace Crunican, BART's general manager, said the two sides had agreed to stay at the bargaining table through Monday night, adding that management had put their 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"
Though both sides are restrained by a gag order from discussing negotiations, Crunican said management's final officer consisted of a 12 percent raise over four years.
A BART strike in early July brought the system to a halt in the crowded Northern California region, but a court-ordered cooling-off period requested by Governor Jerry Brown forced employees back to work for an additional two months.
Leaders of the two biggest unions involved in the talks, the SEIU and the Amalgamated Transit Union, have said they hope to avoid a strike.
Rick Rice, a spokesman for Oakland-based BART, has said management was able to make a new offer to employees after a special meeting of the transit system's board on October 10.
BART has sought for employees to contribute to 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 healthcare 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 have said they are ready for workers to contribute more to their healthcare.
BART management has said the average employee gets an annual salary of $79,500 plus $50,800 in benefits. 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.
The potential strike would take place against an unusual backdrop of public discomfort with a possible labor action in the typically pro-union region, said Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University.
"Public opinion polls have shown a very restless public when it comes to a possible BART strike," Gerston said. "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."
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.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by John Stonestreet)