By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Striking San Francisco-area transit workers and management resumed talks through a federal mediator on Monday in hopes of ending a four-day-old walkout that has paralyzed the nation's fifth-largest commuter rail system.
The renewed contract talks marked the first round of bargaining since more than 2,000 Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, employees launched their strike on Friday morning, hours after talks broke down over wages and workplace rules.
Both sides suggested they had narrowed their differences and that a settlement was in sight, but the latest negotiation sessions were being conducted over the phone through a federal mediator, Greg Lim, who is acting as a go-between.
BART's management team and the two unions involved - Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1555 - last met face-to-face just before talks collapsed on Thursday afternoon.
On Monday, BART officials and negotiators from the two union locals were communicating with the mediator from their respective office headquarters in Oakland, on the east end of San Francisco Bay.
"The mediator is facilitating a meeting this afternoon, and we are hoping to reach an agreement," BART spokesman Rick Rice said.
SEIU spokeswoman Cecille Isidro said the two sides had essentially reached agreement on wages, pensions and healthcare contributions, while work rules that the union says could lead to unsafe conditions remained the chief stumbling block. She said she was not at liberty to elaborate. BART officials said the two sides were still in dispute over economic issues.
Both parties said commuter trains could conceivably return to service on Tuesday morning if they could reach a deal by about 6 p.m. local time on Monday (0100 GMT Tuesday), but that hour passed without any word that a deal was in sight.
LONG LINES, FRUSTRATED COMMUTERS
"People want to get back to work, but we're not willing to compromise on safety," Isidro said.
The strike has idled a commuter rail system that serves more than 400,000 round-trip riders a day in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and outlying suburbs, causing severe rush-hour gridlock in one of the most traffic-clogged cities in the United States.
Among those waiting in long lines for a bus in San Francisco was Christian Cammerer, 31, a visiting researcher from Germany trying to get to work at the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley.
"Normally it takes only 45 minutes tops. Today, I'm looking at a 2 1/2-hour commute," Cammerer said at the city's crowded Transbay bus station.
BART ranks as the fifth-largest U.S. rapid transit system by ridership, after New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Boston, according to data from the American Public Transportation Association.
The strike, a continuation of labor strife that led to an earlier walkout in July, took a tragic turn on Saturday when two transit workers - a BART manager and a contractor - were struck and killed by a BART train while inspecting a section of track.
The unions suggested in a statement on Sunday that BART management might have been partly responsible for the deaths, saying labor officials had warned agency executives about the risks of allowing replacement drivers to operate trains.
The driver of the train in question, which was out of service and not carrying commuters at the time, has not been identified, but BART officials said the train was running on automatic control when the accident occurred.
The National Transportation Safety Board began an investigation of the incident on Sunday.
For months, BART management and employee unions have been at odds over pay and benefits for union workers who are demanding large pay raises, in part to offset being asked to contribute to their pensions and pay more for healthcare.
Under the terms of the last contract proposal made public, BART said it offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years. According to management, BART workers earn $79,000 a year on average, plus benefits. The unions put the average worker's salary at $64,000.
Union representatives had said late on Sunday that they had delivered a "new counterproposal" to management offering flexibility on rules governing workplace technology, but no details were disclosed.
The BART walkout is the second this year after unionized workers went on strike for 4-1/2 days in July. That strike, the first against the BART system since 1997, was called off after management and labor agreed to extend their negotiations for another 30 days.
As those talks bogged down and the unions threatened to strike again in August, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown obtained a court order imposing a 60-day cooling-off period aimed at giving the two sides more time to reach a settlement.