OAKLAND -- BART trains began rolling again Friday, ending a 41/2-day strike -- for now. But the only thing the two sides appear to agree on is just how far apart they are from settling a labor dispute that could soon cripple the Bay Area commute once again.
Without a deal by Aug. 4, BART's blue-collar union workers may walk off the job once more. The scenario left commuters on edge and raised the stakes on bargaining talks set to continue next week.
Union officials insist they didn't cave by returning to work but simply wanted to show their goodwill to the 200,000 people who depend on the rail line each weekday.
Both sides said they were optimistic they would make progress, pointing to their faith in Gov. Jerry Brown's new mediators, who had urged BART employees to continue working under their old contract as they try to hash out a deal.
"I think they will put both parties under the gun to come to a good agreement for everybody," said Josie Mooney, chief negotiator for the local Service Employees International Union, one of the two groups representing 2,300 blue-collar workers. "I don't want to think about the dire consequence it will cause if we don't."
Antonette Bryant, president of the local Amalgamated Transit Union, was more blunt: "If they don't come back to the table, there's going to be a problem."
Experts said while it's more common for unions such as nurses to use short-term strikes as a negotiating tactic, it's hardly unprecedented for workers to take a break before they resume striking.
"Now (BART) really knows the stakes," said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in labor issues. "The fact that unions did go on strike -- that sets the stage for the future negotiations."
Unions said they agreed to go back to work so their members could start getting paid again and because they were concerned for BART riders. But four labor experts and many riders interviewed Friday thought the unions were bowing to the public pressure that was directed at workers on the picket lines.
"I think the unions calculated wisely that a stoppage of greater duration would antagonize the public and probably they would be the object of the public's ire," said William Gould, a Stanford University professor of law emeritus who wrote the recently revised "A Primer on American Labor Law."
Echoing many commuters who were so angered this week, Shari O'Brien, who caught one of the first BART trains in San Francisco after service began at 3 p.m., said: "It ended because they realized they don't have public support for the strike."
BART's elected board of directors was under pressure as well to meet its goal of reinstating service by Monday in time for the first full workweek since the strike began.
"I almost lost my job," Oakland chef Lucas Gorman, 23, said as he boarded one of the first trains on Friday after spending the week begging friends for rides. "It was an extreme inconvenience."
BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said "it became clear that we were going to need much more than just a few days" to resolve the ongoing fight over pay, pension contributions and health care benefits. State mediators have issued a gag order preventing both sides from publicly releasing their latest proposals, but both sides and even the mediators have made it clear that not much progress has been made recently.
"It's true that we're still far apart on the economic package," Trost said. Over the next 30 days, "there's no telling how it will go. It's unfortunately impossible to tell if a strike will happen. We'll have to see how it plays out."
Under the terms of the deal that runs through 11:59 p.m. Aug. 4, any raises to pay and employee contributions to benefits negotiated in the meantime will be retroactive to July 5. In the meantime, workers cannot strike and management cannot impose a contract on the unions, as the BART board had hinted it might. California Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern and two top mediators would control the negotiating schedule and public release of information.
Despite the long-term uncertainty, most commuters were simply glad to know the trains are once again running.
"I'm hoping they'll resolve and each side will get what they need," said Ryan Williams, 47, who had to rent a Zipcar this week to reach his job at the Dixie restaurant in San Francisco.
Williams, who was one of the first riders back on the train on Friday, said he hoped the two sides would "meet in the middle." Otherwise, he said, in 30 days riders will be "right back where we were."
Staff writer Brittny Mejia contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.
State mediators issued a gag order on the latest proposals late Tuesday. But before then, the latest proposals from each side were far different. Both sides said they were far apart Friday on the three main issues remaining.
Currently: The average blue-collar union BART worker makes about $78,000 a year in gross pay, including overtime.
BART's offer: 8 percent salary increases over four years.
Unions' offer: 20.1 percent salary increases over three years.
Currently: Employees do not contribute to their pensions.
BART's offer: The employee share would rise steadily until reaching 6 percent after four years.
Unions' offer: Workers start paying 0.5 percent toward their retirement annually for three years.
Currently: All workers pay a flat $92 each month for medical benefits, no matter how many dependents they have.
BART's offer: Increase employee contribution steadily until hitting 16 percent after four years, including a gradation that accounts for family size.
Unions' offer: Exact proposal isn't known, but it is far apart from BART's offer.
Source: BART, unions