By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Union leaders and rail system management in the San Francisco Bay Area vowed to return to the bargaining table on Thursday, continuing what has become a daily drama over whether commuter train service would be interrupted by a potentially crippling strike.
A deadline has been set and abandoned five times over the past week, as protracted contract talks between Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officials and unions inch forward in marathon sessions lasting well into the night.
The sides have been at loggerheads over pay and benefits for more than 2,000 train drivers and other union workers who are demanding pay raises in part to offset being asked to contribute to their pensions and other benefits.
The BART trains are used for more than 400,000 rides each day in the Northern California region, where traffic is among the worst in the United States, and a four-and-a-half-day strike in July forced some residents to miss work and others to endure commutes of three hours or more.
BART management said it offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years to workers who they say earn on average $79,000 a year, plus benefits. The unions put the average worker's salary at $64,000.
Roxanne Sanchez, president of the local branch of the Service Employees International Union - one of the two unions representing BART workers in the talks - said progress had been made toward a resolution on Wednesday. The second union involved in the talks is the Amalgamated Transit Union.
U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service director George Cohen told reporters late on Wednesday that some progress had been made. Trains were running on Thursday.
Many commuters in the Bay Area have gone to bed most nights this week uncertain if trains would be running in the morning.
"BART's phones are ringing off the hook," BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said Wednesday. "Our email submission forms are flooding with concerned riders and concerned people from the Bay Area frustrated that we cannot tell them at a reasonable hour if the trains are going to be running tomorrow."
Adding to the pressure, a union representing workers at the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit Agency, which operates buses in many of the same communities served by BART such as Oakland, had notified its management on Monday it could call a strike as soon as Thursday.
But California Governor Jerry Brown intervened on Wednesday to postpone such a walkout, at least for now, beginning a process to potentially impose a 60-day cooling-off period on the bus system. Brown had successfully sought such a period for BART workers, but it expired last week and cannot be renewed.
(Writing and additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Gevirtz)