By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Striking SanFrancisco-area transit workers and management resumed talksthrough a federal mediator on Monday in hopes of ending afour-day-old walkout that has paralyzed the nation'sfifth-largest commuter rail system.
The renewed contract talks marked the first round ofbargaining since more than 2,000 Bay Area Rapid Transit, orBART, employees launched their strike on Friday morning, hoursafter talks broke down over wages and workplace rules.
Both sides suggested they had narrowed their differences andthat a settlement was in sight, but the latest negotiationsessions were being conducted over the phone through a federalmediator, Greg Lim, who is acting as a go-between.
BART's management team and the two unions involved - ServiceEmployees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 and AmalgamatedTransit Union (ATU) Local 1555 - last met face-to-face justbefore talks collapsed on Thursday afternoon.
On Monday, BART officials and negotiators from the two unionlocals were communicating with the mediator from theirrespective office headquarters in Oakland, on the east end ofSan Francisco Bay.
"The mediator is facilitating a meeting this afternoon, andwe are hoping to reach an agreement," BART spokesman Rick Ricesaid.
SEIU spokeswoman Cecille Isidro said the two sides hadessentially reached agreement on wages, pensions and healthcarecontributions, while work rules that the union says could leadto unsafe conditions remained the chief stumbling block. Shesaid she was not at liberty to elaborate. BART officials saidthe two sides were still in dispute over economic issues.
Both parties said commuter trains could conceivably returnto service on Tuesday morning if they could reach a deal byabout 6 p.m. local time on Monday (0100 GMT Tuesday), but thathour passed without any word that a deal was in sight.
LONG LINES, FRUSTRATED COMMUTERS
"People want to get back to work, but we're not willing tocompromise on safety," Isidro said.
The strike has idled a commuter rail system that serves morethan 400,000 round-trip riders a day in San Francisco, Oakland,Berkeley and outlying suburbs, causing severe rush-hour gridlockin one of the most traffic-clogged cities in the United States.
Among those waiting in long lines for a bus in San Franciscowas Christian Cammerer, 31, a visiting researcher from Germanytrying to get to work at the University of California Museum ofPaleontology in Berkeley.
"Normally it takes only 45 minutes tops. Today, I'm lookingat a 2 1/2-hour commute," Cammerer said at the city's crowdedTransbay bus station.
BART ranks as the fifth-largest U.S. rapid transit system byridership, after New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago andBoston, according to data from the American PublicTransportation Association.
The strike, a continuation of labor strife that led to anearlier walkout in July, took a tragic turn on Saturday when twotransit workers - a BART manager and a contractor - were struckand killed by a BART train while inspecting a section of track.
The unions suggested in a statement on Sunday that BARTmanagement might have been partly responsible for the deaths,saying labor officials had warned agency executives about therisks of allowing replacement drivers to operate trains.
The driver of the train in question, which was out ofservice and not carrying commuters at the time, has not beenidentified, but BART officials said the train was running onautomatic control when the accident occurred.
The National Transportation Safety Board began aninvestigation of the incident on Sunday.
For months, BART management and employee unions have been atodds over pay and benefits for union workers who are demandinglarge pay raises, in part to offset being asked to contribute totheir pensions and pay more for healthcare.
Under the terms of the last contract proposal made public,BART said it offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years.According to management, BART workers earn $79,000 a year onaverage, plus benefits. The unions put the average worker'ssalary at $64,000.
Union representatives had said late on Sunday that they haddelivered a "new counterproposal" to management offeringflexibility on rules governing workplace technology, but nodetails were disclosed.
The BART walkout is the second this year after unionizedworkers went on strike for 4-1/2 days in July. That strike, thefirst against the BART system since 1997, was called off aftermanagement and labor agreed to extend their negotiations foranother 30 days.
As those talks bogged down and the unions threatened tostrike again in August, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown obtaineda court order imposing a 60-day cooling-off period aimed atgiving the two sides more time to reach a settlement.
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