OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- The Bay Area Rapid Transit agency and two of its unions still appear a long way from resolving their bitter labor dispute as demonstrated before a fact-finding appointed panel by Gov. Jerry Brown.
With a threat of another strike looming, tens of millions of dollars apparently separate BART's contract proposal from that of its unions, the parties said Wednesday as each repeatedly disputed the exact amount of the difference.
"Unfortunately, we remain far apart on the major issues of this contract," BART General Manager Grace Crunican testified. "That is why we are here today."
Crunican said BART is trying to balance investing in workers with the long term sustainability and financial health of the transit system.
But, Vincent Harrington, an attorney for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), told the panel, "We are not ashamed to be bargaining to defend a middle-class wage and benefit package. No one should be ashamed of that."
His comments prompted union members in the audience, many in purple SEIU T-shirts, to applaud.
The panel was appointed by Brown on Sunday, as a strike that would have snarled the Monday morning commute looms large.
The panel has been given seven days to investigate the contract dispute and report its findings to the governor, who can then petition a court to call a 60-day cooling off period in the negotiations.
BART trains would continue to run during that period.
The panel will explain the positions of BART and the union but will not find fault or issue a recommendation. The panel has until Sunday night to submit a report to the governor.
However, there is the potential for a strike on Monday if a cooling-off period is not declared and the two sides are unable to reach a deal by Sunday night. The parties are scheduled to resume bargaining Thursday.
BART Senior Attorney Vicki Nuetzel said Wednesday the agency and the unions are $100 million apart in a proposed four-year contract. But, Kate Hallward, an attorney for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), the other union battling BART, disputed that figure. She pegged the difference at about $56 million for a three-year contract.
Later, Carter Mau, BART's budget director, still sticking to a $100 million gap over four years, told the panel that a gap over three years would actually be about $62 million.
The labor dispute has already resulted in a 4 1/2-day strike a month ago that snarled traffic on roadways and left commuters with long lines for buses and ferries.
The nation's fifth largest rail system, BART carries an estimated 400,000 daily riders from the farthest reaches of San Francisco's densely populated eastern suburbs to San Francisco International Airport across the bay.
Paul Oversier, BART's assistant general manager, urged the governor to request a 60-day cooling-off period, saying a strike would hurt the economy and create serious threats to public health and safety.
"For those people who have no viable option other than BART, a strike represents nothing less than a temporary immobilization of their lives," he said.
Also Wednesday, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce went a step further and asked for the parties to continue around-the-clock negotiations and bring an arbitrator if necessary to reach a deal.
BART and its unions continue to squabble over wages, pension and employees' health care contribution.
BART employees represented by ATU and the SEIU average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually. They pay nothing toward their pensions and a $92-a-month flat fee for health insurance, according to BART.
BART said it has offered to raise salaries by 9 percent, up from 8 percent, over four years. It also scrapped its proposal to have employees pay a percentage of health care premium increases. Instead, employees could pay the $92 flat rate for the cheapest plan or pay more for higher cost plans, BART officials said.
Union officials countered that any proposed raise would be offset by takeaways in benefits. The unions are seeking a 15 percent raise over three years, according to BART.
Associated Press writers Mihir Zaveri and Terry Collins in San Francisco contributed to this report.