By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Commuter rail workers in the San Francisco Bay Area walked off their jobs on Friday after talks on a new contract broke down over pay and workplace rules, throwing the day's commute into chaos in the traffic-clogged region.
The walkout by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers shut down a rail system that carries about 400,000 passengers a day, transporting commuters back and forth between Oakland, San Francisco 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 had to carpool to his job in San Francisco. He also blamed rail workers, saying they "have a stranglehold on the city."
The walkout was the second this year. BART workers went on strike for four and a half days in July, forcing some people to miss work and others to endure commutes of three hours or more.
For months, BART management and employee unions have been at loggerheads over pay and benefits for more than 2,000 train drivers and other 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 offer that has been made public, BART said it offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years to workers, 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 in part by pointing out that San Francisco and nearby Oakland are among the 10 most expensive U.S. cities in which to live.
After negotiating until late every day this week, the unions said the sides had finally reached an overall understanding on pay and benefits, but were at odds over workplace rules that the unions said BART had proposed at the last minute.
BART management disputed that, saying no agreement had yet been reached on wages. Management said federal mediators helping in the talks had proposed a model that management accepted, which included an economic package coupled with work rule changes.
"The unions grabbed the salary offer but balked at the work rule changes. While BART and the mediators were still at the table, union leaders announced a strike to the media," BART General Manager Grace Crunican said in a statement.
The proposed workplace rules at issue included allowing same-day schedule changes, eliminating marginal pay increases for certain senior custodial staff and scrapping practices including guidelines for how injured workers would be re-integrated onto the job, Service Employees International Union spokeswoman Cecille Isidro said.
Unions announced the strike on Thursday, and a federal mediator in the negotiations said he was ending efforts at conciliation because there was no more he could do.
'JUST BEING GREEDY'
With trains halted for the day on Friday, dozens of commuters, many with bicycles, lined up at a bayside ramp in Alameda on Friday morning to board a ferry to San Francisco, seagulls flying overhead. Some were angry, others nonchalant.
At a BART station in Walnut Creek, some 20 miles east of San Francisco, 12 charter buses were full before dawn and not everyone got tickets, BART spokeswoman Luna Salaver said.
Outside another station often used by poor commuters in El Cerrito, across the bay from San Francisco, about a dozen picketing BART workers heard honks of support from passing motorists and shouts of abuse from others.
"You're just being greedy. You're lucky to have a job. Get back to work," yelled Dennis Lindsey, a personal trainer, as he waited for a ride from a friend.
Joe Wilson, an ex-union organizer waiting for a bus nearby, countered: "A strike is the only power the workers have."
Meanwhile, there were no immediate signs that the sides might soon be back at the negotiating table. BART officials urged the union to put management's proposals to a vote or continue negotiating.
Peter Castelli, executive director of SEIU Local 1021, said the strike would end if BART management agrees to arbitration on the work rules still in dispute. He said talks had not resumed but that there was "a lot of interest on all sides to meet."
Crunican, BART's general manager, said management would consider binding arbitration on the full contract but not just the work rules.
After the July walkout, California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, obtained a court order preventing another strike for 60 days, which has now expired. To end the strike, Brown would have to call a special session of the legislature, which would have to act.
"An extraordinary special session, at this point, would not lead to the quick solution the people of the Bay Area want and deserve," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said.
Aside from the frustration of commuters, experts say the strike will be a drag on the local economy. The July work stoppage caused from $73 million to $100 million a day in lost productivity for riders, said Rufus Jeffris, spokesman for the Bay Area Council that studies the region's economy.
BART commuter rail service helps alleviate car traffic in San Francisco, which ranks as the third most congested metropolitan area in the nation after Los Angeles and Honolulu, according to roadway traffic software company INRIX Inc.