OAKLAND – Less than 90 minutes before a midnight strike deadline for the Bay Area’s commuter rail system, union leaders agreed to extend negotiations for one more day, sparing 200,000 round-trip riders the anxiety of a scramble for alternative transportation on a Monday.
The surprise twist came after a marathon weekend of negotiations in which BART management and union leaders – as well as state and local elected officials who had streamed into Caltrans headquarters to help achieve resolution – described developments as "hopeful."
Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 had pledged to walk off the job Monday morning if a new labor agreement was not reached by midnight Sunday.
They were ensconced in the California Department of Transportation's downtown Oakland headquarters for hours before a group of state lawmakers emerged shortly after 10 p.m. with discouraging news.
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) said legislators had been present over the last week “because we want discussion to keep going.” While they were “heartened” that the “gap has narrowed” in the past few days, she said, they were “disappointed” when BART management placed a final offer on the table at 4 p.m.
“We felt that it did a lot of damage,” Skinner said.
She noted that unions had agreed to keep talking, and she and other lawmakers called on BART management “to withdraw that final offer so the talks can still keep going.... The gap has narrowed, and we believe that agreement is possible, but both sides need to keep talking.”
Pete Castelli, SEIU Local 1021 executive director, issued a statement shortly thereafter saying workers and management “have been unable to reach an agreement” but vowing to “continue bargaining for one more day in order for the riders, our workers, and the Bay Area to get the resolution to these drawn-out negotiations they deserve.”
Castelli said union negotiators were “tired,” “frustrated” and “sorry” because they were “so close to an agreement.”
The unions, which represent 2,375 mechanics, custodians, station agents, clerical workers and train operators, are seeking a raise of almost 12% over three years (down from a demand of more than 20% in early summer). BART has proposed a 10% increase over four years.
[Updated, 12:13 a.m. PDT Oct. 14: BART General Manager Grace Crunican issued a statement just before midnight saying the final management offer included a 12% raise over four years and represented a $7-million boost over Friday's offer. The unions have two weeks to vote on the "last, best and final" offer, she said.
"We’ve given them two weeks to consider the offer and take it to a vote of the members," she said. "I really hope that they are going to take it seriously and look at it. We are open to any ideas over those two weeks that they may have. We will try and keep that conversation open. It is time to bring this to a close. The Bay Area is tired of going to bed at night and not knowing if BART will be open or not. It is time to bring it to a close, it’s been long enough."]
A four-and-a-half day strike in July dealt a blow to the region’s economy and left commuters scrambling for alternatives. A regional business group estimated economic losses at $73 million per day.
A 60-day cooling-off period requested by Gov. Jerry Brown and ordered by a court expired late Thursday, and the unions had been prepared to walk off the job Friday morning. Instead, they agreed to negotiate through the weekend.
A gag order has prohibited both sides from commenting on details of negotiations, but Castelli said in his statement that his union had made “real progress” on the economic issues of pay, pensions and health benefits but were struggling to come to agreement on safety issues, which management has previously called a “smoke-screen” diversion.
BART confirmed in a brief statement that there would be no Monday strike and said more information would follow. BART chief negotiator Thomas Hock said earlier in the evening: "We feel good about where we are...BART without question is trying to prevent a strike if at all possible."
The failure to achieve a deal by the midnight deadline was somewhat unexpected, as both unions and management had indicated over the weekend that the trajectory of talks was positive.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaking outside the Caltrans headquarters earlier in the day, said failure to reach agreement would be “preposterous for both sides at this stage, when you’re getting this close, to put at risk your reputation and the economy of the entire region. Everyone loses.”
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