BART Transit Bosses Want Concessions-ATU 1555/SEIU 1021 Unions, managers must reach deal by end of month

BART Transit Bosses Want Concessions-ATU 1555/SEIU 1021 Unions, managers must reach deal by end of month

By Michael Cabanatuan

June 10, 2013

Commuters have grown weary of the routine. Every four years, BART and its labor unions try to agree on a new contract before time and patience expire and the people who run the transit system go on strike.

Typically a deal is struck at the last minute, often in the dark of early morning, long after commuters have gone to bed not knowing how or if they'll be able to get to work without the Bay Area's largest regional transit system.

It was supposed to be different this year with a new general manager at the helm, a new BART negotiator and the absence of the aggressive campaign mounted by the transit district four years ago.

But with about three weeks to go before contracts expire on June 30, the situation is starting to look familiar. BART and its largest unions - Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents train operators and station agents, and Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents mechanics and maintenance workers - are taking hard stances, at least in public, and making little progress toward a contract.

Nobody is ready to talk strike yet, and both sides say they hope to agree on a deal in time to give commuters confidence the trains will keep running. But June 30 is rapidly approaching.

"It's moving at a slow rate at this moment," said Alicia Trost, a BART spokeswoman, of the labor talks. "It would have to pick up for us to get a deal by that point."

Health protections sought

Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Local 1555, said the union "would sign a contract today if it keeps up with the cost of living in the Bay Area and gives us health and safety protections. We don't want to go on strike."

The unions have proposed a three-year contract with raises of 5 percent, plus an automatic cost-of-living increase, each year, which adds up to about a 23 percent raise over three years.

"That's based on the fact that workers are working harder and safety conditions have not been addressed, making their jobs dangerous," said Leah Berlanga, a Service Employees chief negotiator. "We haven't had a raise in over five years, yet we maintain this great system and ridership continues to go up."

BART has not yet made a proposal regarding wages but has asked for employees to make increased contributions to health and pension benefits.

BART has 2,841 of its employees in five labor unions that bargain some issues separately but economic issues - including wages and benefits - jointly. Service Employees represents 1,430 workers, and 945 are represented by Amalgamated Transit. The American Federation of State and Municipal Employees represents 210 employees, mainly supervisors and midlevel managers. Two police unions, one for rank-and-file officers and one for sergeants and lieutenants, cover 256 people, but are prohibited from striking. BART has 411 nonunion employees.

Health insurance and pension benefits are shaping up as the biggest issues. BART officials have said that they need to start reinvesting in capital improvements not only to deal with a system now 40 years old, but to handle ridership that has risen faster than expectations to about 400,000 a day.

To help raise the $15 billion they need over the next 20 to 25 years - to pay for new rail cars, a new maintenance facility and an upgraded train control system - the transit district needs to get a handle on its benefits costs, BART's top managers say.

All BART employees pay $92 a month, regardless of plan or number of people covered, for health insurance that costs the agency from almost $700 to more than $2,000 per employee monthly, said Carter Mau, executive manager of planning and budget. Employees don't contribute anything to their state pension plans, with BART picking up both the employer and employee shares.

"It's important for us to have employees paying at least a portion of the employee share," Mau said, "especially since we know costs are going to go up in the future."

BART also hopes to slash overtime, which is unavoidable given unanticipated events ranging from playoff games and victory parades to breakdowns, said Paul Oversier, deputy general manager for operations. But BART can reduce unscheduled absences, which average 40 days per year per worker, he said. That average includes workers using sick days, going out on disability, or taking state and federal medical and kin care leaves.

Daily union meetings

Union officials say that those figures seem high but acknowledge that many of their members have been injured on the job, including some who've been assaulted at work. In fact, Amalgamated Transit has begun a campaign, complete with videos showing injured workers, urging BART to ensure the safety of its employees.

While both sides report bargaining is proceeding slowly, BART is meeting with at least one union every day, Trost said, and labor and BART representatives said they hope for a deal before June 30, when the unions could call a strike if an agreement is not reached.

The last BART strike occurred in September 1997, when the system gave 275,000 rides a day, and lasted six days.

Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Twitter: @ctuan