By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco's commuter trains lumbered back into operation for the first time in five days early on Tuesday after union workers reached a tentative labor deal with management, ending a strike that paralyzed the nation's fifth-largest rapid transit network.
Officials for the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, system clinched a settlement late on Monday with two unions that represent more than 2,000 striking employees, capping several months of contentious contract negotiations over wages, benefits and workplace rules.
Due to the late hour of the deal - announced at around 10 p.m. Monday (0500 GMT Tuesday) - and the logistics of ramping up the system from a standstill to full capacity, BART executives said normal service was unlikely to resume before the Tuesday afternoon rush-hour.
Train service was limited early on Tuesday, and BART officials warned riders to expect 30- to 45-minute delays as employees returned to work.
"I feel very happy when I hear the BART strike was over," said Eva Gallegos, a certified nurse assistant from San Leandro whose commute had been frustrated by the strike.
She added that it took over an hour and a half to drive from her home to her job in Berkeley. She took side streets and said she saw freeways "packed like a parking lot."
At a usually bustling BART station just off clogged Interstate 80 in El Cerrito, the parking lot was not as full as usual on Tuesday on a cold and foggy morning as trains resumed full service. No station agent was on duty.
The strike, a continuation of labor tensions that led to a four-day walkout in July, halted a commuter rail system that serves more than 400,000 riders a day in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and suburbs.
The result was extreme rush-hour gridlock in one of the most traffic-clogged cities in the United States, whose commuter rail system ranks as the fifth-largest for U.S. rapid transit by ridership, after New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Boston, according to data from the American Public Transportation Association.
'MORE THAN WE WANTED TO PAY'
The settlement came after the two sides resumed bargaining on Monday afternoon, conducting their talks by phone through a federal mediator who acted as a go-between rather than meeting face-to-face, at least initially.
The negotiations were the first since a previous round of talks collapsed last Thursday.
For months, BART and its employee unions have been at odds over pay and benefits. Workers were demanding large pay raises, in part to offset management demands that they contribute to their pensions and pay more for health care.
Under the terms of the last contract proposal made public, BART said it was offering a 12 percent pay hike over four years. According to management, BART workers earn $79,000 a year on average, plus benefits. The unions put the average worker's salary at $64,000.
Details of the tentative settlement, reached with the help of a federal mediator and subject to ratification by union rank-and-file and BART's board of directors, were not disclosed.
But BART General Manager Grace Crunican described the four-year package as providing "more than we wanted to pay."
The two unions involved - Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 - said the deal "provides for reasonable wage increases, a compromise on pension and healthcare costs (and) work rule changes that allow for innovation and input from workers."
The July BART strike, the first against the transit system since 1997, ended after management and labor agreed to extend their negotiations for 30 days. The unions threatened to strike again in August, but Governor Jerry Brown obtained a court order imposing a 60-day cooling-off period.
(Additional reporting by Ann Saphir, Braden Reddall, Ronnie Cohen and Noel Randewich in San Francisco; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)