San Francisco rail workers strike, throwing commute into chaos

Reuters

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Commuter rail workers inthe San Francisco Bay Area walked off their jobs on Friday aftertalks on a new contract broke down over pay and workplace rules,throwing the day's commute into chaos in the traffic-cloggedregion.

The walkout by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers shutdown a rail system that carries about 400,000 passengers a day,transporting commuters back and forth between Oakland, SanFrancisco and outlying suburbs.

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

The walkout was the second this year. BART workers went onstrike for four and a half days in July, forcing some people tomiss work and others to endure commutes of three hours or more.

For months, BART management and employee unions have been atloggerheads over pay and benefits for more than 2,000 traindrivers and other union workers who are demanding large payraises, in part to offset being asked to contribute to theirpensions and pay more for 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 and nearby Oakland areamong the 10 most expensive U.S. cities in which to live.

After negotiating until late every day this week, the unionssaid the sides had finally reached an overall understanding onpay and benefits, but were at odds over workplace rules that theunions said BART had proposed at the last minute.

BART management disputed that, saying no agreement had yetbeen reached on wages. Management said federal mediators helpingin the talks had proposed a model that management accepted,which included an economic package coupled with work rulechanges.

"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," BARTGeneral Manager Grace Crunican said in a statement.

The proposed workplace rules at issue included allowingsame-day schedule changes, eliminating marginal pay increasesfor certain senior custodial staff and scrapping practicesincluding guidelines for how injured workers would bere-integrated onto the job, Service Employees InternationalUnion spokeswoman Cecille Isidro said.

Unions announced the strike on Thursday, and a federalmediator in the negotiations said he was ending efforts atconciliation because there was no more he could do.

'JUST BEING GREEDY'

With trains halted for the day on Friday, dozens ofcommuters, many with bicycles, lined up at a bayside ramp inAlameda on Friday morning to board a ferry to San Francisco,seagulls flying overhead. Some were angry, others nonchalant.

At a BART station in Walnut Creek, some 20 miles east of SanFrancisco, 12 charter buses were full before dawn and noteveryone got tickets, BART spokeswoman Luna Salaver said.

Outside another station often used by poor commuters in ElCerrito, across the bay from San Francisco, about a dozenpicketing BART workers heard honks of support from passingmotorists and shouts of abuse from others.

"You're just being greedy. You're lucky to have a job. Getback to work," yelled Dennis Lindsey, a personal trainer, as hewaited for a ride from a friend.

Joe Wilson, an ex-union organizer waiting for a bus nearby,countered: "A strike is the only power the workers have."

Meanwhile, there were no immediate signs that the sidesmight soon be back at the negotiating table. BART officialsurged the union to put management's proposals to a vote orcontinue negotiating.

Peter Castelli, executive director of SEIU Local 1021, saidthe strike would end if BART management agrees to arbitration onthe work rules still in dispute. He said talks had not resumedbut that there was "a lot of interest on all sides to meet."

Crunican, BART's general manager, said management wouldconsider binding arbitration on the full contract but not justthe work rules.

After the July walkout, California Governor Jerry Brown, aDemocrat, obtained a court order preventing another strike for60 days, which has now expired. To end the strike, Brown wouldhave to call a special session of the legislature, which wouldhave to act.

"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.

Aside from the frustration of commuters, experts say thestrike will be a drag on the local economy. The July workstoppage caused from $73 million to $100 million a day in lostproductivity for riders, said Rufus Jeffris, spokesman for theBay Area Council that studies the region's economy.

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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