By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 19 (Reuters) - One of the main unions on strike against the San Francisco commuter rail system will suspend picketing for a day after a train struck and killed two workers who were checking a section of track on Saturday.
The strike against the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency, which carries about 400,000 riders a day, has snarled traffic across the region. It began on Friday after contract talks broke down over pay and workplace rules.
The two workers killed were a BART employee and a contractor, agency officials said.
They were checking a possible dip in the track just north of the station in suburban Walnut Creek when a BART train functioning on automatic control, with an operator inside, struck and killed them, the agency said in a statement.
The train was being taken to a maintenance yard to have graffiti removed, BART assistant general manager Paul Oversier told reporters. The two workers killed were "long-term railroad track specialists," he said.
"I cannot overemphasize to you how long these people have been in the business - they understand how to work around moving trains," Oversier said.
One of the two workers, whose names were not released, was with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Oversier said. The union is not on strike but has asked members to show up on picket lines to support other workers. The employee "chose to come to work," Oversier said.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, one of two main unions leading the strike by over 2,000 BART workers, said on its Twitter page that "due to the recent tragedy" that left two dead "and out of respect for the families involved ATU's members will not be picketing tomorrow."
On Saturday night, picketers held candlelight vigils for the two workers killed, said Cecille Isidro, spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 which is the larger of the two main unions in the strike. Members would continue to hold vigils as they picketed on Sunday, she added.
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board is taking over the investigation into the deaths, BART General Manager Grace Crunican said in a statement.
"This is a tragic day in BART's history," Crunican said in a statement. "The entire BART family is grieving."
BART has seen only a handful of worker deaths in its 41-year history, Oversier told reporters.
The BART walkout is the second this year, after the agency's unionized workers went on strike for 4-1/2 days in July. Their unions and BART management were unable to reach a deal in the following months.
Commuters have expressed frustration at the stalemate and experts say the strike will be an economic drag. The July work stoppage caused from $73 million to $100 million a day in lost productivity for riders, said Rufus Jeffris, spokesman for the Bay Area Council, which studies the local economy.
Unions announced the latest strike on Thursday, and a federal mediator ended efforts at conciliation, saying there was no more he could do. Little progress has been made since then, and the two sides have not met since Thursday.
BART has been in contact with union leaders, but no talks are scheduled, BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said on Saturday.
The unions said they had an overall settlement on pay issues, but a BART spokesman said the two sides were still some "percentage points" apart. They also were at odds over workplace rule changes the unions said BART insisted on at the last minute.
Crunican said in a statement on Friday the work rules had been an issue for six months and were critical to the rail system's operation.
Under the terms of the last contract offer that has been made public, BART said it offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years to workers, who management says earn on average $79,000 a year, plus benefits. The unions put the average worker's salary at $64,000.
Union leaders have justified their pay requests by noting that San Francisco is among the 10 most expensive U.S. cities in which to live.
BART commuter rail service helps alleviate car traffic in San Francisco, which ranks as the third most congested metropolitan area in the country after Los Angeles and Honolulu, according to roadway traffic software company INRIX Inc.