OAKLAND -- AC Transit buses will be rolling Wednesday after a contract deal was reached less than an hour before a threatened midnight strike that would have crippled public transit in the East Bay.
AC Transit and the union representing its East Bay bus drivers, mechanics and dispatchers reached the agreement after a marathon day of negotiations.
"We're not doing it at high noon. We're doing it at high midnight," said David Armijo, the bus system's general manager, speaking after transit officials briefly emerged from an hours-long closed session meeting.
The settlement provided relief for Bay Area commuters, who have already struggled through a 4 1/2 day BART strike in early July and continue to worry that the train system may shut down again after a cooling-off period called by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Shortly after 11 p.m., AC Transit management and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192 announced they had agreed to a 9.5 percent raise over three years for the more than 1,600 drivers, mechanics, dispatchers and clerical workers.
The deal will save the district's 181,000 daily riders from being stranded during a strike that was set to begin at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
Just a few hours earlier, union and management pay raise proposals differed by just .75 percent over three years and their monthly health premium proposals differed by $10.
"We're going to stay here until this thing is done," said Joe Wallace, a board member from North Richmond who made his remarks shortly before 7 p.m. After the deal was reached, Wallace added, "I especially want to thank my board members who stayed here until it was done."
In an upbeat news conference after the agreement, Yvonne Williams, president of ATU Local 192, said she was deeply satisfied by the deal even though she acknowledged she was worried that the settlement came so close to the strike deadline.
"I'm satisfied that the buses are running, that our members' contract provisions have been preserved, and that our members continue to work and be able to support their families," she said.
Williams said she he was relieved that the bus system's many transit-dependent riders will be not be stranded. "I think BART could take a lesson from the AC Transit board in getting it done."
The union had given notice on Monday of a strike to begin Wednesday. District officials say the last strike at AC Transit was 38 years ago, and some had expressed confidence earlier Tuesday that a compromise could be reached before a system wide shutdown.
"If talks proceed as they have, we should be OK in the morning," AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson said earlier Tuesday. "We are a little unsure why a strike notice was given in the first place."
Earlier on Tuesday night, the union was asking for a 9.75 percent pay raise while AC Transit management was offering 9 percent to the union workers. The union had been demanding a 10 percent pay raise earlier in the day. Both sides described the negotiations as amicable.
By 11 p.m., an accord was reached for a 9.5 percent raise over three years: 2.75 percent the first year, 3.25 percent the second, 3.5 percent the third. Workers, for the first time, will also start paying health premiums equivalent to $70 monthly in the first year, $140 in the second and $180 in the third. Workers will still not have to make any payment toward their pensions, Johnson said.
Johnson said AC Transit drivers are paid an average salary of $55,000 a year. With benefits that comes out to $103,000 a year, he said.
The two sides had been negotiating Tuesday through "shuttle diplomacy," with management at its downtown Oakland headquarters and the union at an attorney's office nearby.
Ted Miller, an AC Transit bus driver with 25 years experience, had said Tuesday he thought the drivers would go through with their planned strike. He said the increase in medical premiums would eat up part of the pay raise.
"They don't want us to be able to pay our mortgages or send our kids to college," Miller said. "They're like bullies and they'll take all they can get."
The strike threat surprised and worried many regular riders who depend on the East Bay buses to get to and from work. On a late-night transbay bus from San Francisco to Oakland on Monday night, several workers commuting home from jobs at Bloomingdale's, the Microsoft Store and elsewhere said they live too far from BART stations to take the train home at night.
"I don't live anywhere near the BART station," said Richard Davis, a resident of Oakland's upper Dimond district. "It would be a nightmare."
Davis, however, said he was more sympathetic to the demands of AC Transit employees than to the better-paid BART workers who are threatening their second strike this summer.
Bus drivers "put up with a lot of grief" and probably deserve a raise, Davis said.
One transit director had anticipated a compromise earlier Tuesday evening as she prepared for a long night of talks.
"We're close to the point where perhaps we can reach an agreement," said Elsa Ortiz, who represents the city of Alameda and parts of San Leandro and Oakland. "Both sides have given and taken."
Five of the seven district directors were physically present for a nearly 5-hour closed session meeting Tuesday night. Another, Joel Young, joined by teleconference from a few blocks away. Greg Harper, the president of the board, was out of town.