UPDATE 3-San Francisco rail strike averted for another day; no deal yet
(Updates with no strike, but no deal)
By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO Oct 16 (Reuters) - A potentially crippling commuter rail strike in the San Francisco Bay Area was averted for another day after marathon contract talks, with a federal mediator saying progress had been made and promising trains would run on Thursday.
Union leaders and rail system management have been negotiating late into the night all this week, seeking a deal with unionized Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) employees who have been working without a contract since July.
The sides have been at loggerheads over pay and benefits for more than 2,000 train drivers and other unionized workers who are demanding large pay raises in part to offset being asked to contribute to their pensions and other benefits.
The BART trains are used for more than 400,000 rides each day in the Northern California region, where traffic is among the heaviest in the nation.
U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service director George Cohen told reporters late on Wednesday that some progress had been made and trains would run on Thursday. Negotiations would continue through the night, he said.
Management had been offering a 12 percent pay raise over four years to the workers, who they say earn on average $79,000 a year, plus benefits. The unions peg the average worker salary at $64,000.
Union leaders justify 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 to live.
Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at University of California at Berkeley, said the union also hoped to make up for years of stagnant wages during the economic downturn. Meanwhile, BART officials were seeking to conserve resources to update outdated parts of the transit system, he said.
Many commuters in the Bay Area have gone to bed most nights this week uncertain if trains would be running in the morning. A walkout would be the second on the rail system this year, after BART workers went on strike for four and a half days in July.
"BART's phones are ringing off the hook," BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said. "Our email submission forms are flooding with concerned riders and concerned people from the Bay Area frustrated that we cannot tell them at a reasonable hour if the trains are going to be running tomorrow."
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, had notified its management on Monday it could call a strike as soon as Thursday.
But California Governor Jerry Brown intervened on Wednesday to postpone such a walkout, at least for now, beginning a process to potentially impose a 60-day cooling-off period on the bus system. Brown had successfully sought such a period for BART workers, but it expired last week and cannot be renewed.
Larry Gerston, a retired professor of political science at San Jose State University, has said the union might be reluctant to go on strike, partly 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.
Roxanne Sanchez, president of the local branch of the Service Employees International Union - one of the two unions representing BART workers in the talks - said progress had been made toward a resolution on Wednesday.
(Writing and additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, John Stonestreet)