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BART Strike Averted for Another Week; California Governor Orders Inquiry

Monday, August 05, 2013 - 08:06 AM

KQED
BART passenger entering the fare gates (flickr)

The latest: Gov. Jerry Brown has stepped into the deadlocked talks between BART and its two biggest unions and appointed a three-member board of inquiry to examine the unresolved issues in the labor dispute.

Brown's move, made at the request of BART officials, means that workers will not go on strike tonight and trains will roll as usual Monday morning.

In a Sunday night letter to union leaders and BART management, Brown said the three-member board of inquiry will conduct its investigation and report back to him within seven days. Union leaders said during an impromptu press conference outside Caltrans District Four headquarters in Oakland that train service will continue during that time. The inquiry could lead to a formal cooling-off period.

Brown acted under a state law that allows him to order a board of inquiry if a strike or lockout threatens to disrupt public transportation and endanger "the public's health, safety, or welfare."

The union leaders expressed frustration that this weekend's marathon talks ended with the two sides still far apart on the three central issues: pay and future pension payments and contributions to medical benefits.

"We want to say that we have been here for the last 24 hours, and we only got a very regressive proposal from BART in the last 45 minutes," SEIU Local 1021 chief negotiator Josie Mooney said. "We're very disappointed in their continued posturing, their continued negotiations, which are in very bad faith."

In a brief press conference at BART headquarters after Brown's announcement, BART board President Tom Radulovich disputed Mooney's account. "We don't think we put forward a regressive offer," Radulovich said. "As we've sat here this weekend, our wage offer went up and up."

In a statement, BART said Radulovich wrote Brown earlier Sunday to ask him to declare a 60-day cooling-off period.

A cooling-off period would “allow us to continue negotiating while assuring the public that it will have transit service tomorrow and for another 60 days as we continue to bargain,” Radulovich wrote.

Brown's decision to order the board of inquiry stopped short of Radulovich's request, though.

SEIU Local 1021 President Roxanne Sanchez thanked the governor for stepping in, but said that all sides must now focus on presenting a case to the investigating board. "Unfortunately, it takes our attention away from the bargaining table," Sanchez said. "But perhaps this will shed the light on what we've been trying to tell you, the press and the public."

Under law, the board of inquiry's report to the governor must be made public.

In his letter, Brown said the board of inquiry includes: Jacob Appelsmith, the board's chairman, director of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control; Micki Callahan, director of human resources for the city and county of San Francisco; and Robert L. Balgenorth, president emeritus of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California.

The governor concluded by asking all sides for a quick resolution. "For the sake of the people of the Bay Area, I urge—in the strongest terms possible—the parties to meet quickly and as long as necessary to get this dispute resolved," Brown said.

Brown acted under California Code Section 3612, subdivision a. That provision reads:

Whenever in the opinion of the Governor, a threatened or
actual strike or lockout will, if permitted to occur or continue,
significantly disrupt public transportation services and endanger the
public's health, safety, or welfare, and upon the request of either
party to the dispute, the Governor may appoint a board to investigate
the issues involved in the dispute and to make a written report to
him or her within seven days. The report shall include a statement of
the facts with respect to the dispute, including the respective
positions of the parties, but shall not contain recommendations. The
report shall be made available to the public.

Earlier post: About 8 p.m., BART's hired chief negotiator, Thomas Hock, left the talks at Caltrans District Four headquarter to confer with the transit agency's management. He told reporters there had been some progress in the talks. But the unions' lead negotiators also left the talks for a dinner break, and they suggested there's been little or no progress. If you're looking for a reason to feel hopeful the trains will be running in the morning, it's in the insistence of both sides to keep talking tonight.

Here's how the latest report from the Bay Area News Group sums up the scene with less than three hours to go until the midnight strike deadline:

BART chief negotiator Tom Hock, leaving the bargaining table Sunday night to brief other agency officials, said "we're getting closer" but that talks were moving "slowly." As he walked, about two-dozen union workers shouted at him: "Hock go home!"

Minutes later, Chris Finn, recording secretary for the local Amalgamated Transit Union, said no progress had been made but that union leaders were ready to negotiate all night: "We've got a hotel room and we're ready to meet around the clock if need be," he said.

BART spokesman Rick Rice said proposals were going "back and forth" between management and the unions. He was encouraged that the talks had stretched on so long and hoped unions would see enough progress that, even without a deal, they would extend the talks into Monday while keeping service intact.

"There's a lot of activity going on. I'm hopeful," Rice said. "When I see this much activity (and talks go on) this long I'm more hopeful we'll keep talking and keep trains running."

There was one media flurry Sunday afternoon. The BART chapter of SEIU Local 1021 and Local 1555 of the Amalgamated Transit Union put out word that they'd hold a press conference at 1:30 p.m. in Oakland. That drew a crowd of media. But just before the appointed time, an SEIU representative appeared, apologized for the inconvenience, and canceled the press event. KQED's Alex Emslie said a groan went up from the crowd of reporters, some of whom asked whether the cancellation was a good sign. All the union rep had to say was, "We're working diligently."

And just to recap what the major issues are—"the generals," or general issues, in the parlance of BART General Manager Grace Crunican:

  • Pay: Unions are seeking a substantial raise after agreeing to a wage freeze in their 2009 contract. Their opening position was 23 percent over four years. It's unknown what their current proposals might be, but BART has said in the past few days that it has stuck to an 8 percent raise over the four-year term of the new contract—compared to an opening position of 4 percent.
  • Pensions: Most BART union employees currently pay nothing into their pensions. BART said in a recent statement it wants them to pay 5 percent of their salaries into their pension plan and that the unions are seeking to hold the contribution to 3 percent.
  • Medical benefits: BART's union employees currently pay $92 a month for medical insurance, regardless of how many people are covered in an employee's policy. BART says it's seeking to get workers to cover 10 percent of the monthly cost of their plans and that the unions want to continue paying a flat rate.
  • Unions have also sought unspecified improvements in safety procedures for station workers, train operators, and maintenance personnel.
  • Citing a gag order on negotiations, the unions have not released details of their current proposals for pensions or medical benefits.

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