By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A judge is expected to decide on Sunday whether to block a possible San Francisco-area rail worker strike that threatens to disable a critical part of the region's transportation system serving 400,000 daily passengers.
California Governor Jerry Brown announced plans on Friday to seek an injunction to bar Bay Area Rapid Transit District workers from striking for 60 days if the transit agency and its employees fail to resolve their contract dispute by Sunday.
BART management and the unions representing its 2,600 workers have been in contentious negotiations for more than four months and have been millions of dollars apart on a potential settlement.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow is scheduled to consider Brown's request for the 60-day "cooling-off" period, which would be in effect through midnight on October 10, according to the injunction application filed with the court.
If the request is not granted, the unions could strike as early as Monday in their second walkout of the summer.
The BART rail system was shut down for 4-1/2 days in July when union workers walked off the job, creating severe roadway congestion and forcing commuters to miss work or crowd onto a limited number of other public transportation options.
Brown averted a proposed strike last Sunday by appointing a three-person board to investigate the BART labor feud. The board was charged with hearing from both sides of the dispute and reporting back to the governor on its findings.
After hearing from both sides at a heated public meeting on Wednesday, the board found that a strike would result in "significant harm to the public's health, safety and welfare," Brown said on Friday.
The public safety threat determination was needed for Brown to seek a cooling-off order.
BART management, which has voiced its support for a cooling period, reported a $62 million gap in contract terms at Wednesday's meeting.
Union officials, who said there was a $56 million difference in proposals, have opposed the 60-day block on a strike and said they thought they could reach a contract settlement by Sunday.
Management has said it offered workers a 9 percent pay raise over four years but want employees to pay 5 percent of their salaries toward pensions. Employees currently do not contribute to their pensions.
The unions have said they want a 15 percent raise over three years and that additional pay increases would be needed to offset the higher benefit contributions.
BART management says the average employee gets an annual salary of $79,500 plus $50,800 in benefits, and it is concerned the cost of benefits will continue to climb after increasing by nearly 200 percent in 10 years.
Union representatives peg salaries of BART workers at $64,000 on average, saying that management's figures included higher salaries for managers.
(Editing by Kevin Gray, Ellen Wulfhorst and Jackie Frank)