By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Talks to forestall a potentially crippling rail strike in the San Francisco area moved forward on Tuesday, even as management officials said they could not guarantee that there wouldn't be a strike affecting about 400,000 daily riders.
More than 2,000 Bay Area Rapid Transit drivers and other employees have been working without a contract since June 30, and two unions representing them have repeatedly said they were prepared to walk off the job if no deal was reached.
So far, two midnight deadlines for a strike have come and gone since Sunday with no agreement between negotiators, who stayed at the bargaining table into the early morning hours of Tuesday.
The two sides resumed talks at about 1 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon and BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said there had been movement, although she could not assure San Francisco area commuters that the trains would be running on Wednesday morning.
"It's somewhat of a doubled-edged sword that while we don't know what's going to happen the next day (with train service), they (the public) can at least know that progress is being made and that we're at the table and working towards a resolution. Hopefully the uncertainty can come to an end," Trost said.
Union leaders, who had said on Monday night that only a "hail Mary" could stop a strike, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Management has offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years for workers, who they say make an average of $79,000 plus benefits. The unions peg the average worker salary lower at $64,000, excluding manager pay.
BUS WORKERS COULD ALSO STRIKE
Should a strike halt the BART trains, riders would be forced to turn to the bus system for public transit options. However, a union representing workers at the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit Agency, the third largest in the Bay Area, on Monday notified its management they could strike as soon as Thursday.
Partly because BART worker pay is considered by many to be generous - and considerably higher than the median U.S. salary of about $50,000 - the potential strike comes against an unusual backdrop of public discomfort with a possible labor action in a typically pro-union region.
"The Bay Area traditionally is a very pro-labor part of California. But this go-round, the issue seems to be framed differently," said Larry Gerston, a retired professor of political science at San Jose State University.
"The relatively high salaries of BART employees, the overtime they routinely get, in conjunction with lots of sick time, and that's against a backdrop of a public that's just recovering now from a recession where every dollar meant a whole lot."
The unions point out that San Francisco and nearby Oakland are both among the 10 most expensive U.S. cities. Because the management offer also includes a demand that employees pay a portion of their medical and retirement benefit costs, some of the 12 percent offered in raises would be immediately swallowed up by those contributions.
The unions had initially asked for a three-year contract, with a 3.75 percent raise in each of the first two years and a 4 percent raise in the last year.
BART spokesman Rick Rice has said the transit system wanted workers to contribute to pensions, starting at 1 percent in the first year and growing to 4 percent in the fourth. The agency also wanted a cap on its healthcare costs, he said.
Bay Area commuters had a taste of the havoc a transit strike could bring in July, when BART employees walked off the job after their contract first expired. A strike was again threatened in August before Democratic Governor Jerry Brown intervened to seek a 60-day cooling-off period, now expired.
Melvin Mendoza, 31, had to take three days off from his job as a technical support specialist at a San Francisco law firm during the July action.
"Transportation last time was just a nightmare," said Mendoza, a father of two whose wife uses the family's only car to get to her job. "The way this is going, it's putting a bad taste in my mouth both on the part of BART and with my concept of the unions."
(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Stacey Joyce)