As Yet Another (!) Strike Looms, BART Labor Leaders Say They Don’t Want Additional Cooling Off Period

Negotiators for BART and its labor unions returned to the bargaining table today in hopes of reaching an agreement before Sunday night, which is the latest contract deadline in an ongoing saga that has kept Bay Area commuters on pins and needles.

BART employees went on strike on July 1, returned to work four days later and threatened to go on strike again on Monday before Gov. Jerry Brown intervened late Sunday by calling for a fact-finding panel to investigate the labor dispute.

The three-person panel conducted a day-long hearing in Oakland on Wednesday and will report its findings to Brown but it will be up to the governor to decide whether to grant BART management’s request for a 60-day cooling off period.

Brown’s spokesman, Evan Westrup, said today that the best-case scenario is that BART reaches an agreement with its union by Sunday night and Brown doesn’t have to decide whether to order such a delay.

Westrup said he doesn’t know when Brown would make a decision on a cooling off period if the two sides remain at loggerheads. In the meantime, Brown will be monitoring the talks and remains “hopeful that they can reach an agreement,” he said.

The key issues in the contract talks, which began on April 1, are wages and employees contributions for their health care and pension costs.

BART management is offering a 9 percent increase over four years but the unions are seeking 5 percent a year plus cost-of-living increases.

Today’s bargaining session is the first since Brown declared the seven-day fact-finding period Sunday night. The parties have said they plan to bargain throughout the weekend if necessary.

Several labor leaders told BART’s board of directors at their meeting today that they think a cooling off period is unnecessary.

Tim Paulson, the executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, said the fact-finding hearing on Wednesday “was totally unnecessary” and he hopes there’s not a cooling off period.

Paulson told the board, “There is a path to an agreement if you talk to all three unions. Nobody wants a strike.”

Paulson said, “There’s an opportunity for you to instruct management to come to a deal by Sunday because there are only a few issues left.”

The biggest unions involved in the talks are Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents 1,430 mechanics, custodians and clerical workers, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents 945 station agents, train operators and clerical workers.

But a third BART union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3993, which represents about 210 middle managers, is also involved.

Its members honored the other unions’ picket lines during the strike in July and will join them if there’s another strike on Monday.

AFSCME Local 3993 President Patricia Schuchardt told BART directors, “I sure hope there’s no cooling off period. But if the governor grants one, I hope you don’t take a break from negotiating because that would be the worst thing for our riders.”

George Popyack, a negotiator for the union, said, “I truly hope we can settle the main economic issues and we should be able to do so by Sunday.”

California’s two U.S. Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, sent a letter to BART management and the unions today urging them to settle their differences.

Feinstein and Boxer said, “We urge you to resume negotiations in good faith, end the dispute, and work together to avoid any further disruptions to BART service.”

The two senators said, “The Bay Area relies on a safe, affordable, and reliable public transportation system, and any BART service disruption has significant impacts on our region’s economy and the hundreds of thousands of commuters who use the system.”

They said the four-day BART service disruption in July cost the Bay Area at least $73 million in lost productivity, according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

Jeff Shuttleworth, Bay City News

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