Union plans to suspend picketing after accident kills two San Francisco rail workers

Reuters

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 19 (Reuters) - One of the main unions onstrike against the San Francisco commuter rail system willsuspend picketing for a day after a train struck and killed twoworkers who were checking a section of track on Saturday.

The strike against the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency, whichcarries about 400,000 riders a day, has snarled traffic acrossthe region. It began on Friday after contract talks broke downover pay and workplace rules.

The two workers killed were a BART employee and acontractor, agency officials said.

They were checking a possible dip in the track just north ofthe station in suburban Walnut Creek when a BART trainfunctioning on automatic control, with an operator inside,struck and killed them, the agency said in a statement.

The train was being taken to a maintenance yard to havegraffiti removed, BART assistant general manager Paul Oversiertold reporters. The two workers killed were "long-term railroadtrack specialists," he said.

"I cannot overemphasize to you how long these people havebeen in the business - they understand how to work around movingtrains," Oversier said.

One of the two workers, whose names were not released, waswith the American Federation of State, County and MunicipalEmployees, Oversier said. The union is not on strike but hasasked members to show up on picket lines to support otherworkers. The employee "chose to come to work," Oversier said.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, one of two main unionsleading the strike by over 2,000 BART workers, said on itsTwitter page that "due to the recent tragedy" that left two dead"and out of respect for the families involved ATU's members willnot be picketing tomorrow."

On Saturday night, picketers held candlelight vigils for thetwo workers killed, said Cecille Isidro, spokeswoman for theService Employees International Union Local 1021 which is thelarger of the two main unions in the strike. Members wouldcontinue to hold vigils as they picketed on Sunday, she added.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board istaking over the investigation into the deaths, BART GeneralManager Grace Crunican said in a statement.

'TRAGIC DAY'

"This is a tragic day in BART's history," Crunican said in astatement. "The entire BART family is grieving."

BART has seen only a handful of worker deaths in its 41-yearhistory, Oversier told reporters.

The BART walkout is the second this year, after the agency'sunionized workers went on strike for 4-1/2 days in July. Theirunions and BART management were unable to reach a deal in thefollowing months.

Commuters have expressed frustration at the stalemate andexperts say the strike will be an economic drag. The July workstoppage caused from $73 million to $100 million a day in lostproductivity for riders, said Rufus Jeffris, spokesman for theBay 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 have not met since Thursday.

BART has been in contact with union leaders, but no talksare scheduled, BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said on Saturday.

The unions said they had an overall settlement on payissues, but a BART spokesman said the two sides were still some"percentage points" apart. They also were at odds over workplacerule changes the unions said BART insisted on at the lastminute.

Crunican said in a statement on Friday the work rules hadbeen an issue for six months and were critical to the railsystem's operation.

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 pay requests by noting that San Francisco is among the 10 most expensive U.S. cities inwhich to live.

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

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