San Francisco rail workers strike, throwing commute into chaos

Reuters

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Commuter rail workers in the San Francisco Bay Area walked off their jobs on Friday after talks on a new contract broke down over workplace rules, throwing the day's commute into chaos in the traffic-clogged Northern California region.

The walkout by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers shut down a rail system that carries about 400,000 passengers a day, transporting commuters back and forth between Oakland, San Francisco and outlying suburbs.

"I am mad as hell. It's a big hassle - thanks to BART," said

Jurgen Ware, who lives in the Bay Area suburb of Dublin and had to carpool to his job in San Francisco. He also blamed rail workers, saying they "have a stranglehold on the city."

The walkout was the second this year. BART workers went on strike for four and a half days in July, forcing some people to miss work and others to endure commutes of three hours or more.

For months, BART management and employee unions have been at loggerheads over pay and benefits for more than 2,000 train drivers and other union workers who are demanding large pay raises, in part to offset being asked to contribute to their pensions and pay more for healthcare.

Under the terms of the last contract offer made public, BART said it offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years to workers, who management says earn on average $79,000 a year, plus benefits. The unions put the average worker's salary at

$64,000.

Union leaders have justified their demands for higher pay in part by pointing out that San Francisco and nearby Oakland are among the 10 most expensive U.S. cities in which to live.

After negotiating late every day this week, the unions said the sides had finally reached an overall understanding on pay and benefits, but were at odds over workplace rules the unions said BART had proposed at the last minute.

BART spokesman Rick Rice countered that the sides remained "several percentage points away" from a deal on wages.

The proposed workplace rules at issue included allowing same-day schedule changes, eliminating marginal pay increases for certain senior custodial staff and scrapping past practices that included guidelines for how an injured worker would be integrated back onto the job, Service Employees International Union spokeswoman Cecille Isidro said.

Unions announced the strike on Thursday, and a federal mediator in the negotiations said he was ending efforts at conciliation because there was no more he could do.

FERRY RIDE

With trains halted for the day, dozens of commuters, many with bicycles, lined up at a bayside ramp in Alameda on Friday morning to board a ferry to San Francisco, seagulls flying overhead. Some were angry, others nonchalant.

"As much as I'm inconvenienced, I actually like taking the ferry. It's a nice change from being on a congested train," said Shweta Doshi, 22, of Oakland, who works as a market research analyst in San Francisco and was among those in line.

BART commuter rail service helps alleviate car traffic in San Francisco, which ranks as the third most congested metropolitan area in the nation after Los Angeles and Honolulu, according to roadway traffic software company INRIX Inc.

Authorities have promised free charter buses and expanded ferry services, but said those services were capable of transporting a limited number of people.

At one BART station in Walnut Creek, about 20 miles east of San Francisco, the 12 charter buses on hand were full before dawn, and not everyone got tickets, said BART spokeswoman Luna Salaver.

"The folks that got here very early - prior to 5 a.m. - were more successful in getting these tickets," she said.

Outside another station often used by poor commuters in El Cerrito, across the bay from San Francisco, about a dozen picketing BART workers heard honks of support from passing motorists and shouts of abuse from others.

"You're just being greedy. You're lucky to have a job. Get back to work," yelled Dennis Lindsey, a personal trainer, as he waited for a ride from a friend.

Joe Wilson, a former union organizer waiting for a bus nearby, countered: "A strike is the only power the workers have."

Meanwhile, there were no immediate signs that the sides might soon be back at the negotiating table. BART officials urged the union to put management's proposals to a vote or continue negotiating.

Peter Castelli, executive director of SEIU Local 1021, said the strike would end if BART management agrees to arbitration on the work rules still in dispute. He said talks had not resumed but that there was "a lot of interest on all sides to meet."

California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, after the July walkout obtained a court order preventing another strike for 60 days, but that expired last week and Brown would have to call the legislature back for a special session to end the work stoppage.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup in an email said the two sides should rely on arbitration. "An extraordinary special session (of the legislature), at this point, would not lead to the quick solution the people of the Bay Area want and deserve," he said.

The strike, in addition to the inconvenience, was also a drag on the local economy. The July work stoppage caused from $73 million to $100 million a day in lost productivity for riders, said Rufus Jeffris, spokesman for the Bay Area Council which studies the region's economy.

BART train mechanic David Kwan, 59, marched alongside other workers outside of the Lake Merritt station in downtown Oakland, carrying a sign that read, "Unfair labor practice, on strike."

Kwan said he was prepared to picket every day for the duration of the strike, but many of his coworkers have families to support. "They have young children, so it will affect them more than me," he said.

( This story is corrected with name of city to El Cerrito instead of El Norte in paragraph 18)

(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich, Braden Reddall, Poornima Gupta and Ronnie Cohen.; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Christopher Wilson, Gunna Dickson and Eric Walsh)

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