Relief for Bay Area commuters: Trains to run after 5-day strike

SAN FRANCISCO -- Commuters breathed a collective sigh of relief Friday at news that Bay Area trains would start running again at 3 p.m., after a crippling five-day strike.

The announcement offers only a temporary reprieve, however. Bay Area Rapid Transit management and its two largest worker unions remain far apart on key issues, but they agreed to extend the existing contract through Aug. 4 as negotiations continue.

Frazzled commuters responded with gratitude.

“Thank God,” 21-year-old Mary Miers said as she waited for an express bus from Oakland to San Francisco on Friday – and  gritted her teeth when a full one blasted past without stopping. “This has been a horrible week.”

Miers missed her paid internship at a San Francisco real estate office Friday morning, as she had Monday through Wednesday when a parade of over-stuffed buses passed her by. All told, she lost about $200 in income.

Miers was able to get to her afternoon job at a downtown San Francisco Starbucks earlier this week, but it took about two and a half hours to do so. And when she got to the coffee house, "it was the emptiest I've seen it," she said. 

Her experience offers a glimpse into the economic punch that the first BART strike in 16 years has dealt to San Francisco businesses as plenty of commuters and workers stayed home. A regional business group estimated the cost to the local economy in lost work time, extra fuel and reduced spending was hundreds of millions of dollars.

BART workers have raised some safety concerns during the negotiations, but the stickiest bargaining issues involve money: Employees represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 and Service Employees International Union Local 1021 have sought raises of about 21% over the first three years of a four-year contract. Management has offered 8% over four years.

BART also wants employees to contribute to their pensions -- they currently do not -- and increase their healthcare contributions, which are set at a flat rate of $92 per month, regardless of the number of dependents.

In a statement, BART General Manager Grace Crunican thanked California Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern and his mediation team “for all their help and support in crafting this deal which will allow us to continue bargaining while running the trains.”

While the system will kick into gear at 3 p.m., “the issues that brought us to this point remain unresolved,” she said. "Despite lots of hard work, BART and its unions have failed to come to an agreement on contract issues that matter to all of us today and into the future. We still have a wide gap of disagreements to bridge over the next 30 days.”

On Friday, BART spokesman Rick Rice declined to elaborate on sticking points, saying only: “We have 30 days, we should be back meeting next week and we’re looking forward to getting this settled.”

In an interview, ATU Local 1555 President Antonette Bryant said her union is “concerned about the riding public, so we’re willing to give it a last-ditch effort and see if management will come to the table and bargain with us fully and fairly.”

SEIU 1021 President Roxanne Sanchez assured the public in a statement that BART employees "are working diligently to quickly reach a resolution that is fair and improves safety for both riders and workers." But she pointed a finger squarely at “BART’s high-paid, out-of-state negotiators" for not sharing the "same commitment to our communities," and for choosing to "stall and bargain through the media, consequently leaving hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents stranded and costing our local economy hundreds of millions of dollars."

Miers said she is trying to "withhold judgment" on the strike because she does not know all the details, but said she has been struck by "how much they make ... just for driving BART or sitting in that box" at the station.

Even for commuters who consider themselves union sympathizers, there was clear fatigue.

Anne Clarke, 62, works at Macy’s and is a union member. However, she noted, she pays half of her healthcare at her job.

“They have to meet in the middle,” she said as she and two other commuters who'd been left behind by several buses piled into a cab with an industrious driver who was trolling Oakland bus stops.

Clarke said that Macy’s this week had eased up on a penalty system that docks workers points each time they arrive seven minutes late. While she gave herself the needed hours to make it to her shifts on time this week, her return commute on Thursday took three hours.

Asked how she was feeling about the planned resumption of BART service, Clarke didn’t miss a beat.

“Exceptionally ready,” she said.


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