By Sharon Bernstein
(Reuters) - As a Sunday night deadline loomed for a possible strike that could cripple the San Francisco Bay Area's commuter rail system, transit users braced for Monday morning gridlock as negotiators planned to talk well into the evening.
Unionized drivers and other employees at Bay Area Rapid Transit, which serves more than 400,000 riders daily in the traffic-clogged region, have been working without a contract since June 30.
The union has set a midnight Sunday strike deadline and said it would walk off the job on Monday.
A BART strike in early July brought the system to a halt in the crowded Northern California region, but a court-ordered cooling-off period requested by Governor Jerry Brown forced employees back to work for an additional two months.
The potential strike would take places against an unusual backdrop of public discomfort with a possible labor action in the typically pro-union region, said Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University.
"Public opinion polls have shown a very restless public when it comes to a possible BART strike," Gerston said. "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."
Melvin Mendoza, 31, had to take three days off from his job as a technical support specialist at a San Francisco law firm when BART workers struck in July.
"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."
The low level of public support could work against the unions, Gerston said, and comes as many Democratic politicians have avoided becoming visibly involved on labor's side.
"Management," Gerston said, "is winning the public relations war."
Leaders of the two biggest unions involved in the talks, the Service Employees International Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union, which together represent more than 2,000 BART workers, have said they hope to avoid a strike, agreeing to postpone any action over the weekend despite the expiration of the cooling-off period on October 10.
The two sides negotiated late into the evening on Saturday, before breaking, and plan to reconvene at the Oakland office of the California Department of Transportation on Sunday morning. In what union representatives said was a hopeful sign, Grace Crunican, BART's top executive, is negotiating on the management side.
Rick Rice, a spokesman for Oakland-based BART, said management was able to make a new offer to employees after a special meeting of the transit system's board on October 10.
The main sticking points, he said, were over salary and benefits. Neither he nor union spokeswoman Cecille Isidro would give details, citing a request from the federal mediator handling the talks to refrain from doing so.
In its last known proposal, BART offered employees a 10.25 percent raise over four years, Rice said, adding that "there has been movement" since the last publicly made proposal.
BART had sought for employees to contribute to pensions, starting at 1 percent in the first year of the contract and growing to 4 percent in the fourth year, he said. The agency wanted a cap on its healthcare costs, he said.
The unions had 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. The unions have said they are ready for workers to contribute more to their healthcare.
BART management has said the average employee gets an annual salary of $79,500 plus $50,800 in benefits. It is concerned the cost of benefits will continue to climb after increasing by nearly 200 percent in 10 years. The unions peg the average worker salary, excluding managers, lower - at $64,000.
BART's strike-contingency plan includes chartering buses capable of carrying 6,000 passengers per day, according to a statement posted on Thursday on its website.
(Reporting by Sharon Berrnastein in Sacramento; Additional reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)
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