Now that BART workers are on strike, hundreds of thousands of frustrated commuters are asking: When will it end?
If Friday was any indication, not anytime soon.
The bargaining table was empty as negotiators finished the work week on an indefinite break that stretched on for more than 36 hours. It was not clear if talks would resume this weekend or when trains could start running again, though workers would have to signal the end of a strike by Sunday afternoon to get trains running by the Monday commute.
Politicians' calls for labor peace have gone unheeded. Top mediators failed to bridge the gap. An outpouring of complaints from commuters suffering through a 30 percent increase in freeway traffic and lengthy bus stop lines failed to sway either side.
"We're in the end game. The way out of this is: Who can take the strike longer" -- management or the unions? said Norm Brand, a San Francisco-based mediator who has helped with more than 3,000 labor disputes and other disagreements. "I think it's a pretty hard standoff."
Friday afternoon, unions called a news conference on the "possibility of the end of a strike," igniting hope. They announced workers could get trains running again soon -- but only if management would agree to a new "Rider First Plan" that was essentially the same pre-strike union offer that BART rejected.
There remained two big sticking points between BART and the two unions representing 2,300 blue-collar employees.
First, management was offering a 12 percent raise over four years, while unions were seeking a 15.9 percent pay increase. BART's average union worker currently makes $76,500 in gross salary.
Second, unions were looking to hold onto longtime "work rules" that have helped employees earn large overtime checks and keep control over their job hours. Management says the 470-page work rule book is full of freebies that cost BART a large amount of money, such as allowing train operators to run just two roundtrips during a daylong shift.
The most talked-about work rule change is BART's proposal to use technology to replace some administrative human jobs -- such as eliminating paper paycheck stubs -- but unions say it's a bigger issue.
"If it was about faxes and emails, we could resolve this in about 10 minutes," Chris Finn, a train operator and recording secretary for local Amalgamated Transit Union, said at a Friday afternoon rally in Oakland. "They want to implement whatever changes to our working conditions that they want at will."
But BART Director Zakhary Mallet said management should play "hardball with the union to see who blinks first."
"To me, that means not letting the strike dictate what happens at the bargaining table," Mallet said. "If we made a best, last and final offer, we should stick to that."
So, if both sides refuse to budge, can't somebody else force them to? It hasn't worked so far.
Gov. Jerry Brown used his one-time powers to issue a 60-day cooling-off period in August but has stayed out of the talks since.
Top state Democrats, including Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, have been working both sides, but to no avail. Some state legislators had floated an idea to ban BART strikes, but with the legislative session over for the year, that plan wouldn't restart trains.
George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, stepped in to help get NBA and NFL players to keep playing during labor disputes in recent years but said there was nothing more he could do to help BART talks. Previously, top state mediators appointed by Brown came up empty.
So how long could a strike last? The July shutdown went on for 4½ days, while the last walkout before that, in 1997, lasted six days.
The average BART union worker loses about $290 in gross pay each weekday by walking off the job. After four years, the average union employee would make another $9,180 annually in gross pay under management's proposal versus an additional $12,150 under the unions' offer.
But the unions have already agreed to pay more for benefits, accepting management's offer to raise pension contributions from zero to 4 percent and monthly health care premiums from $92 to $144. Unions also made a slight concession Friday, saying they would give up complete power to reject changes to "past practices" work rules and let an arbitrator decide those disputes.
BART workers also faced some heckling on the picket lines around the Bay Area on Friday, as they did in July. But organized labor groups in the state have stood behind them.
BART, meanwhile, loses millions of dollars each day a strike goes on, but polls have regularly shown the public is strongly on management's side. The next BART Board of Directors election is not for another year, and President Tom Radulovich said the overwhelming majority of the messages he's gotten from the public have implored the board to hold firm.
Staff writers Matthew Artz and Doug Oakley contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.