News Column

BART Strike Leaves Commuters Scrambling

October 18, 2013

Mike Rosenberg and Paul Burgarino, San Jose Mercury News

Oct. 18--OAKLAND -- Frustrated commuters Friday morning scrambled for options hours after BART workers launched a strike to shut down trains after days of talks on a new contract failed Thursday afternoon.

The action set the stage for the second Bay Area commute nightmare in three months.

Commuters on Friday started their commutes earlier than usual as they found other ways to get to work.

Juan Brooks, a compliance officer at the courts in Oakland, filled up at the Shell gas station on Hillcrest Avenue in Antioch at 5:15 a.m., leaving an hour earlier than normal.

"You have to roll with the punches in the Bay Area and just prepare yourself," Brooks said, adding that a lot of people are taking Friday off to avoid a messy commute, but he can't.

About 400,000 riders take BART every weekday on the nation's fifth-largest commuter rail system. The system carries passengers from the farthest reaches of the densely populated eastern suburbs to San Francisco International Airport across the bay.

Just after midnight, union leaders picked up picket signs and said they would not go back to work until they could reach a contract agreement with management, stranding 200,000 people who ride BART roundtrip each day.

Friday morning, six picketers circled the Lake Merritt Bart Station at the corner 8th and Oak Streets with signs that read "No Contract, No Peace."

By late Thursday afternoon, talks had ended altogether and the nation's top mediator had left the bargaining table. A wild round of back-and-forth afternoon news conferences brought to a live TV audience an outpouring of emotion from sleep-deprived negotiators.

"Unfortunately, yes -- we are on strike as of midnight," Antonette Bryant, president of the local Amalgamated Transit Union, said after the end of an epic bargaining session that began about 30 hours before and left negotiators wearing day-old clothes.

Both sides were inching closer on the main economic issues that had separated them for more than six months, but were still about 4 percentage points apart on total wage increases. Unions also said they were fed up after management tried to impose new work rules to limit overtime and other costs.

"It's not management that asked for the strike -- it's the union," BART General Manager Grace Crunican said, taking the microphone after Bryant went back inside the negotiating office in downtown Oakland. Some union members began to heckle her.

In the middle of it all, federal mediator George Cohen, who had been praised for nudging each side closer since joining the talks on Sunday, took to the podium to declare there was "nothing further we were able to do."

"Unfortunately, regrettably, we were not able to bring them the result we all want to achieve: a voluntary collective bargaining agreement," Cohen said. "Our mediation process has come to an end."

Crunican said BART was continuing to propose its latest four-year offer. That includes a total 12 percent pay increase to union workers who now receive an average gross pay of $76,500 annually -- the highest among California transit agencies -- changing pension contributions from zero to 4 percent, and bumping up monthly health care payments from $92 to $144.

Unions had agreed to the pension and health care offers but wanted a 15.9 percent increase in pay, BART said.

"I think we've offered the unions the best wage and benefits package in the country," said BART board President Tom Radulovich, who said the agency was "very, very surprised" by the strike declaration. "There is no need for them to strike. We think it's a terrible idea for the riders and the people of the Bay Area."

The other big remaining issue is BART's refusal to let a neutral arbitrator give the final ruling on various perks that workers want to keep, but which management says are inefficient.

Among the work rules BART wants to change: Currently, union workers can call in sick, work four days and get paid overtime on the fifth day; employees can leave projects in the middle of a job to go work on something else; and employees can receive paper paycheck stubs instead of electronic notices.

After a 4 1/2 -day walkout in July and a 60-day cooling-off period ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown, transit agencies late Thursday began dusting off backup service plans in preparation for a strike. That includes BART running up to 200 shuttle buses between the East Bay and San Francisco, while Caltrans was preparing to enforce all-day carpool hours on bridges and East Bay freeways.

The cooling-off period ordered by Brown twice averted threatened shutdowns in August but ended Oct. 10. Since then, every day but two, the unions representing 2,300 blue-collar workers threatened to strike, only to call it off each night sometime between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.

"I'm sorry, I'm regretful," said Roxanne Sanchez, president of the local Service Employees International Union. "I don't know what to say to the public who has put such faith in the leadership of those who work at BART. The employer has been unwilling to reach an agreement or settle these disputes without a strike."

Thursday marked 200 days since the contract talks began. Earlier in the day, BART's chief negotiator, Thomas Hock, said: "This should be the final stretch."

"It's a very difficult time," Hock added. If they can't reach a deal, "it's not going to go down for a lack of trying."

Agency spokesman Rick Rice also confirmed the strike by the unions in an email early Friday, but he said that the trains would finish their runs early Friday so riders wouldn't be stranded.

"They don't need to strike," he said. "They could instead take BART's offer to a vote of their members or continue to discuss options that could lead to a resolution."

The threat of the latest strike prompted many to search for alternative forms of transportation for Friday's commute.

"I don't want to get in my car again," said BART rider Kyle Brunnelle, 53, of El Cerrito. "I think the public would have such bad blood this time around for both BART and the unions if there is a strike."

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency said it has developed plans to help people to get around, including providing two expanded carpool locations.

The Associated Pres contributed to this report. Staff writers Matthias Gafni, Gary Peterson, Matt Artz and Doug Oakley contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.

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(c)2013 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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Original headline: BART strike leaves Friday commuters scrambling for options



Source: (c)2013 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)