By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Negotiators hoping to avert a potentially crippling rail strike in the San Francisco Bay Area returned to the bargaining table on Wednesday to try to reach a deal, after unions agreed late Tuesday to put off striking for a third straight day.
Trains ran as usual on Wednesday, after talks between union and management wore on late into the night without a deal on a new contract for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers.
The sides have been at loggerheads for months. BART's more than 2,000 train drivers and other unionized workers are demanding large pay raises, while management is seeking to get workers to contribute to their pensions and other benefits.
The threat of a strike hangs heavy over the San Francisco area, where traffic is among the worst in the nation. The BART trains carry more than 400,000 riders each day.
Since last Thursday, a strike deadline has come and gone three times without a deal. The union has held off on striking each time, saying progress was being made in negotiations.
At the request of a federal mediator overseeing the talks, the sides resumed negotiations at 10 a.m. local time on Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, the largest of two unions representing drivers and staff.
"We are encouraged by the progress we've achieved, and at the request of the federal mediators we will continue to bargain," said spokeswoman Cecille Isidro. BART workers are also represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley, said the postponements were a positive sign.
"Each day when they postpone a strike another day, there is a clear sense that there is progress at the negotiating table," Jacobs said. "I think both sides understand the stakes in having a strike, and I don't think either side relishes being there."
A strike would affect passengers from the San Francisco area who rely on the rail system to get into the city and would instead be forced onto buses and other already busy routes.
Adding to the pressure, a union representing workers at the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit Agency, which operates buses in many of the same communities served by BART, notified its management on Monday it could call a strike as soon as Thursday.
Larry Gerston, a retired professor of political science at San Jose State University, has said the union might be reluctant to go on strike, in part because residents of the usually labor-friendly Bay Area are not seen as particularly sympathetic to workers' demands for higher wages.
"The relatively high salaries of BART employees, the overtime they routinely get in conjunction with lots of sick time," have left residents skeptical of a strike, Gerston said.
Management has offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years to the workers. According to management, the BART workers earn on average $79,000 a year, plus benefits. The unions peg the average worker salary at $64,000.
Union leaders justify the demands for higher pay in part by pointing out that San Francisco and nearby Oakland are among the 10 most expensive U.S. cities.
The unions also note that because the management offer 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 begin 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 healthcare costs.
(Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler) nL1N0I61XL
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