Accident kills two San Francisco rail workers on second day of strike

Reuters

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Two workers performingmaintenance on the San Francisco commuter rail system werekilled when a train struck them on Saturday, on the second dayof a strike against the system that has snarled traffic acrossthe region.

A Bay Area Rapid Transit agency employee and a contractorwere checking a possible dip in the track just north of thestation in suburban Walnut Creek when they were struck andkilled by a BART train operating on automatic control during amaintenance run, the agency said in a statement.

A BART spokeswoman could not immediately say if either ofthe two people killed was a member of a union on strike againstthe agency.

Unionized BART employees walked off the job on Friday afternew contract talks broke down over pay increases and workplacerules, shutting down a system that carries some 400,000passengers a day.

The two sides had not agreed to resume talks as of Saturdaymorning, according to spokeswomen for the two main unionsinvolved. "We have nothing scheduled at the moment," saidCecille Isidro, spokeswoman for the Service EmployeesInternational Union.

The BART walkout is the second this year, after the agency'sworkers went on strike for four and a half days in July. Theirunions and BART management were unable to reach a deal in thefollowing months.

Experts say the strike will be an economic drag. The Julywork stoppage caused from $73 million to $100 million a day inlost productivity for riders, said Rufus Jeffris, spokesman forthe Bay Area Council, which studies the local economy.

Unions announced the latest strike on Thursday, and afederal mediator ended efforts at conciliation, saying there wasno more he could do. Little progress has been made since then,and the two sides did not meet at all on Friday.

Union leaders held a news conference on Friday afternoon,unveiling what they called a new set of proposals that could endthe strike later that night if BART officials accepted them.

But BART officials said in a written statement they couldnot agree to the unions' "ultimatums," calling the proposalsessentially the same offer that had already been rejected.

Union negotiators have demanded large pay raises, in part tooffset being asked to contribute to their pensions and pay morefor healthcare.

Under the terms of the last contract offer that has beenmade public, BART said it offered a 12 percent pay raise overfour years to workers, who management says earn on average$79,000 a year, plus benefits. The unions put the averageworker's salary at $64,000.

Union leaders have justified their demands for higher pay inpart by pointing out that San Francisco is among the 10 mostexpensive U.S. cities in which to live.

After negotiating late every day this week, the unions saidthe sides had finally reached an overall understanding on payand benefits, but were at odds over workplace rules the unionssaid BART had proposed at the last minute.

'MAD AS HELL'

But Grace Crunican, BART general manager, said in a writtenstatement on Friday that the work rules had been an issue forsix months and were critical to the rail system's operation.

"Using computers instead of manually recording andtransmitting information is essential in the technology age,"she said. Crunican also suggested that union leaders hadmischaracterized the nature of the disagreement in the press.

"The unions grabbed the salary offer, but balked at the workrule changes. While BART and the mediators were still at thetable, union leaders announced a strike to the media. Theyoffered to submit to binding arbitration on work rules andfalsely announced an agreement on salary," she said.

The proposed workplace rules at issue included allowingsame-day schedule changes, eliminating marginal pay increasesfor certain senior custodial staff and scrapping past practicesthat included guidelines for how an injured worker would beintegrated back onto the job, said Service EmployeesInternational Union spokeswoman Isidro.

Commuters expressed frustration at the stalemate.

"I am mad as hell. It's a big hassle - thanks to BART," saidJurgen Ware, who lives in the Bay Area suburb of Dublin and hadto carpool to his job in San Francisco on Friday. He also blamedrail workers, saying they "have a stranglehold on the city."

After the July walkout California Governor Jerry Brown, aDemocrat, obtained a court order preventing another strike for60 days. But that order has expired and Brown would have to calla special session of the legislature to make another attempt toforce an end to the work stoppage.

"An extraordinary special session, at this point, would notlead to the quick solution the people of the Bay Area want anddeserve," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said in an email.

BART commuter rail service helps alleviate car traffic inSan Francisco, which ranks as the third most congestedmetropolitan area in the nation after Los Angeles and Honolulu,according to roadway traffic software company INRIX Inc.

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