By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Commuter rail workers inthe San Francisco Bay Area went on strike on Friday after talkswith management over a new contract broke down, throwing themorning commute into chaos in the traffic-clogged region.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) management and employeeunions have been at loggerheads for months over pay and benefitsfor more than 2,000 train drivers and other union workers whoare demanding large pay raises in part to offset being asked tocontribute to their pensions and other benefits.
On Thursday, union officials said both sides had finallyagreed on pay and benefits, but remained at odds over workplacerules. It remained murky as to precisely what details aboutworkplace rules had foiled a deal. Under the terms of the lastcontract offer made public, BART management said it offered a 12percent pay raise over four years to workers.
BART commuter train service is used for more than 400,000rides each day and helps lighten traffic in San Francisco, whichranks as the third most congested metropolitan area in thenation after Los Angeles and Honolulu, according to the roadwaytraffic software company INRIX Inc.
The Service Employees International Union Local 1021, whichis one of the two unions in negotiations with BART, set thestrike to begin at midnight on Thursday.
A final negotiating session that began at 10 a.m. local time(1700 GMT) on Wednesday ended more than 28 hours later onThursday afternoon with the two sides splitting up, the unionsaid in a statement. BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost alsoconfirmed talks had ended.
"This is a management strike caused by their unwillingnessto make the deal," Antonette Bryant, president of theAmalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 which is the other mainunion in the strike, told reporters on Thursday.
A federal mediator who has been involved in the talks andwho had previously reported that the sides were making progress,George Cohen, said on Thursday that they had been "unable tobridge the gap" in talks, and that federal mediation effortswould end.
The walkout was the second on the rail system this year,after BART workers went on strike for four and a half days inJuly, forcing some residents to miss work and others to endurecommutes of three hours or more.
Marcella Lentini, 25, who works in marketing and uses BARTto commute to San Francisco from her home in Oakland, said shewould have to work from home on Friday due to the strike. "I'llhave to fend for myself next week," she added.
BART would offer limited charter bus service for commutersduring the strike, but that would only serve 6,000 people a dayat select locations, the agency said on its website.
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 to live. BART managementsays workers make $79,000 a year, plus benefits. The unions putthe average worker's salary at $64,000.
BART General Manager Grace Crunican told reporters thatmanagement did not want a strike, but said the work rules atissue in negotiations are "essential to maintaining the futureefficiency and effectiveness of the agency."
One rule change BART management has sought is the ability toautomate delivery of pay stubs to employees, Crunican said.
For its part, the union seeks to retain whistleblowerprotections for workers who reveal wrongdoing by managers, andwants employees to keep the right to be placed on light dutywhen recovering from an injury, said SEIU spokesman Mark Mosher.
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