By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Bus drivers threatening to shut down a major San Francisco-area transit system over wages and healthcare benefits have reached a tentative contract settlement, averting a strike on Wednesday that would have halted service for nearly 200,000 bus riders.
Union representatives and management reached agreement on Tuesday night, shortly before 1,800 drivers and other workers had planned to walk off the job against the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit Agency, which serves Oakland and Berkeley and links those areas with downtown San Francisco.
California's third-largest public bus system serves 181,000 bus riders daily in two large counties - Alameda and Contra Costa - on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay.
The agreement came less than a week after Governor Jerry Brown intervened to block resumption of a separate strike in the region against commuter rail service threatened by unions representing workers at the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, system.
Rank-and-file union members will vote on whether to ratify the new three-year contract later this month, union spokeswoman Sharon Cornu said.
"This was a long and often intense negotiation, and there are no winners or losers in its outcome," David Armijo, general manager of AC Transit, said in a statement announcing that a deal had been reached with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192.
"This agreement protects workers, helps riders, and keeps service running," Cornu said, saying the direct participation of five members of AC Transit's board of governors in the talks had helped achieve a deal in time to avert a walkout.
The union representing the agency's bus drivers, dispatchers, mechanics and clerical workers had set a strike deadline of 12:01 a.m. Wednesday after initially failing to reach an accord with management on wages, benefits and safety concerns.
After a lengthy bargaining session on Tuesday, the union and the AC Transit board agreed on a 9.5 percent wage increase over three years and annual flat-rate healthcare contributions by workers starting at $70, Cornu said.
Union workers initially asked for a wage hike totaling about 10 percent over three years, while the board was seeking 9 percent, transit agency spokesman Clarence Johnson said.
Union members began negotiations with the board in March, four months before the contract expired.
The East Bay bus system deal came soon after union employees of BART called off a strike deadline against the San Francisco-area's central rail system, which carries 400,000 passengers daily.
As federally mediated talks bogged down, the two unions representing 2,400 BART workers had submitted a notice of intent to go back on strike on Monday morning. A previous shutdown began on July 1 and was called off on July 5.
Brown stepped in on Sunday, appointing a three-member board to investigate the labor dispute in a move that precluded a walkout during the course of the seven-day inquiry.
The investigative panel was due to meet in Oakland on Wednesday to consider presentations from both sides.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Steve Gorman, Gary Hill)