Bay Area commuters who feel like they've already seen a bad movie play out a few times with threatened BART strikes now need to prepare for yet another showing.
Tuesday marks the halfway point in the 60-day cooling off period that Gov. Jerry Brown ordered to avert another BART shutdown. Management and unions spent the last month taking a break from bargaining, despite urging from Brown and others to keep at it.
In a small step, however, BART and one of its two large labor unions finally began talking about the minor "supplemental" issues on Monday afternoon -- the first negotiations since the cooling-off period began. The other labor group is set to return to the table to bargain over the smaller issues on Thursday.
Yet the major topics that have divided them for five months -- led by increases to pay, pension contributions and health care premiums -- will not be discussed until next week, leaving three weeks to avoid another shutdown. BART is still offering a four-year raise of 10 percent, compared with the unions' proposal for a 21.5 percent wage increase over three years.
The unions representing 2,300 blue-collar workers insist they will strike again starting Oct. 11, a Friday, if no deal is reached before then. This time BART would be powerless to stop them, as the law allows for only one cooling-off delay.
After months of small concessions, BART is now characterizing its latest proposal, from a month ago, as its "final" offer. Management says there will not be a deal unless the unions start to budge into what BART Board President Tom Radulovich calls the "settlement zone."
"We really need to see that commitment on the other side," Radulovich said. Otherwise, "then we're just bargaining against ourselves."
Underscoring their strategy, BART quietly disclosed on Monday that it had scored a $5.7 million surplus for the fiscal year that ended in June. But rather than spending the money on employee compensation, the agency proposed its board on Thursday allocate the funds to equipment and infrastructure improvements.
Unions have countered by placing the blame on management for "wasting" the first half of the 60-day delay by refusing to meet with them, saying BART negotiators have "ducked, dodged, bobbed and weaved" while labor leaders tried to meet.
Unions even wrote to Brown on Labor Day urging him to put pressure on management to return to the negotiating table sooner. But BART said there was no point in going over the same old proposals.
"We've been ready to get back to the table, but what we've seen from BART's negotiators is a lack of seriousness in trying to reach an agreement before the end of the cooling-off period," said Cecille Isidro, a spokeswoman for the largest labor group, the Service Employees International Union.
BART employees shut down the system for 4 ½ days after their previous four-year contract expired at the end of June. Following a monthlong truce, they avoided a second strike when Brown ordered a seven-day delay on Aug. 4. When that clock expired, on Aug. 11, a judge granted Brown's request for a 60-day cooling off, setting the fourth deadline for 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 10.
Regional transportation officials are already planning for another strike and expect to use a similar plan from this summer. That includes using BART grants to beef up extra transit service on other local operators and enforce carpool lanes all day.
In addition, officials with the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission are considering a special charter bus service, a strategy not used last time as BART launched its own small bus line for a few thousand riders. However, it would cost about $135,000 a day for 90 buses -- and require nonrefundable deposits -- and provide rides to only a fraction of the 200,000 people who take BART round trip each day.
The July strike cost the region $941,000, mostly for additional buses and ferries, while just "mobilizing" for the potential August strike cost another $126,000 for outreach and other planning.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.