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SF Bay Area stares down possible transit strike

Terry Collins, Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- Hoping to avoid a second strike in less than three months, a San Francisco Bay Area transit agency and two of its unions negotiated late into the night to work out a new contract as a 60-day cooling off period was coming to an end.

The state mandated period between two unions representing Bay Area Rapid Transit system workers and management was set to expire at midnight, which could mean a walk-off prior to Friday morning's commute.

BART officials said they were prepared to meet past the deadline and through the weekend if necessary, and hoped the unions would agree to do the same.

"We're just trying to keep the trains running," BART spokesman Rick Rice said.

Union leaders have not discounted the possibility of striking Friday, but have not announced their intentions to do so, even if no deal has been reached.

"BART has every opportunity to resolve this," said Chris Finn of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555. "We've done everything we can."

BART's chief negotiator, Thomas Hock, said he would not be the one to walk out of the late-night negotiations with the ATU and the Service Employees International Union Local 1021.

"If we keep meeting, something's going to happen," Hock said.

An estimated 400,000 rail commuters would be stranded by a work stoppage on BART, which links far-flung suburbs to bigger Bay Area cities and provides a crucial link under the bay between San Francisco and Oakland.

In July, BART workers struck for 4 1/2 days, leading to jammed bridges and roadways, and crowded buses throughout the Bay Area before Gov. Jerry Brown mandated the cooling-off period.

Earlier in the week, union leaders thought they had a deal with BART management but said the proposal presented late Tuesday was rescinded.

"We thought we were really close and they totally yanked it off the table," ATU President Antonette Bryant said. "We gave them a counteroffer, and the next day they said, 'Oh, you misunderstood what we proposed.' We said, 'No we didn't.'"

Hock said BART never made a formal offer and blamed a mediator for the confusion.

"The mediator misunderstood and miscommunicated what had been talked about because we had never put that offer out there in any way, shape or form," Hock said.

The two sides have reached agreement on pension contributions but are still at odds over compensation, health care and safety.

The unions want a raise of nearly 12 percent over three years while BART has proposed a 10 percent increase over four years. BART said workers from the two unions now average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually. The workers pay a flat $92 monthly fee for health insurance.

State transportation officials released a statement late Thursday saying they'll expand the hours of high-occupancy vehicle lanes and make similar moves Friday should a strike come, and BART management said they would offer limited free charter bus service across the Bay Bridge.