By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Managers and union leaders for San Francisco's commuter rail system, the nation's fifth largest, began talks on Thursday to mend a collapsed contract deal that has led to legal action and a possible return of transit strikes.
Nearly two months after signing a tentative agreement, ending a half-year of bargaining and two employee walkouts, officials for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and its two biggest unions have gone back to the drawing board to resolve a single disputed contract term.
"The best thing would be to get to a place where we could close the deal so our riders can stop being anxious about whether the trains will run," said BART spokeswoman Luna Salaver.
BART and its unions reached a labor contract agreement in October that included a family medical leave clause to allow workers six weeks of paid leave to tend to ailing family members.
Shortly after union members ratified the deal, the BART Board of Directors voted to approve the contracts without the clause, which they said was mistakenly left in the agreement.
Then in December, the unions filed a lawsuit with the Alameda County Superior Court to enforce the contract with the family leave term, which they said BART unlawfully reneged on.
Salaver said BART could not afford the paid six weeks, which would cost between $1.4 million and $44 million over the four-year contract, depending on how many employees used it. Workers now get 12 weeks of unpaid time off for family care, she said.
BART negotiators and leaders of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 were meeting at BART headquarters in downtown Oakland, east of San Francisco.
A federal mediator who worked with the groups in the months leading up to their October deal had returned to aid in the negotiations, Salaver said.
SEIU spokeswoman Cecille Isidro said the meeting was the first time the unions met with BART over the disputed contract term. Union officials have said they would not rule out the option of a third strike over contract disputes.
BART serves more than 400,000 daily riders in San Francisco and surrounding suburbs. When union members went on strike for roughly four days in July and again in October, commuters faced traffic jams and many were forced to be late or miss work and school.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)