UPDATE 3-San Francisco rail workers strike, throwing commute into chaos

Reuters

(Corrects name of city to El Cerrito instead of El Norte inparagraph 18)

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 workplace rules,throwing the day's commute into chaos in the traffic-cloggedNorthern California region.

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 made public, BARTsaid it offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years toworkers, who management says earn on average $79,000 a year,plus benefits. The unions put the average worker'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 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.

BART spokesman Rick Rice countered that the sides remained"several percentage points away" from a deal on wages.

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, 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.

FERRY RIDE

With trains halted for the day, dozens of commuters, manywith bicycles, lined up at a bayside ramp in Alameda on Fridaymorning to board a ferry to San Francisco, seagulls flyingoverhead. Some were angry, others nonchalant.

"As much as I'm inconvenienced, I actually like taking theferry. It's a nice change from being on a congested train," saidShweta Doshi, 22, of Oakland, who works as a market researchanalyst in San Francisco and was among those in line.

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.

Authorities have promised free charter buses and expandedferry services, but said those services were capable oftransporting a limited number of people.

At one BART station in Walnut Creek, about 20 miles (32 km)east of San Francisco, the 12 charter buses on hand were fullbefore dawn, and not everyone got tickets, said BART spokeswomanLuna Salaver.

"The folks that got here very early - prior to 5 a.m. - weremore successful in getting these tickets," she 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, a former union organizer waiting for a busnearby, countered: "A strike is the only power the workershave."

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."

California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, after the Julywalkout obtained a court order preventing another strike for 60days, but that expired last week and Brown would have to callthe legislature back for a special session to end the workstoppage.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup in an email said the two sidesshould rely on arbitration. "An extraordinary special session(of the legislature), at this point, would not lead to the quicksolution the people of the Bay Area want and deserve," he said.

The strike, in addition to the inconvenience, was also adrag on the local economy. The July work stoppage caused from$73 million to $100 million a day in lost productivity forriders, said Rufus Jeffris, spokesman for the Bay Area Councilwhich studies the region's economy.

BART train mechanic David Kwan, 59, marched alongside otherworkers outside of the Lake Merritt station in downtown Oakland,carrying a sign that read, "Unfair labor practice, on strike."

Kwan said he was prepared to picket every day for theduration of the strike, but many of his coworkers have familiesto support. "They have young children, so it will affect themmore than me," he said. (Additional reporting by Noel Randewich, Braden Reddall,Poornima Gupta and Ronnie Cohen.; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis;Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Christopher Wilson, Gunna Dicksonand Eric Walsh)

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