As BART workers and management continue their stalemate in negotiations for a new contract, one of the agency's unions today reiterated their concerns over the safety of its employees.
Officials with Service Employees International Union Local 1021 held a news conference in San Francisco today to call attention to what they said was BART's refusal to address safety concerns raised by workers as the two sides remain in a 60-day cooling off period.
"We have deep and very potent concerns for the safety of the workers and also the riders," said Josie Mooney, a lead negotiator for SEIU Local 1021, which represents about 1,430 mechanics, custodians and clerical workers at the agency.
Saul Almanza, a safety instructor at BART who has been with the agency for 17 years, said vegetation growing from underneath raised train tracks causes fire dangers, while diseased trees beside tracks pose risks of falling on trains or causing derailments.
Almanza said some underground tunnels have inadequate lighting that is also dangerous for workers and potentially riders who could have to be evacuated off of a train.
He said those two issues have led to worker deaths in 2001 and 2008 and that the union is calling for a small crew to go out along the tracks at night to remove the debris after service has ended for the day.
"We would like to see the district take these demands seriously," he said.
BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said the agency has responded to union concerns over safety and is including $4.5 million in its budget for fiscal year 2014 as part of a three-year program to replace all tunnel lighting.
Trost said during frequent first responder drills that sometimes occur in BART tunnels, "never has anyone raised a concern over the lighting conditions."
She also said the request for a six-person graveyard shift crew to remove vegetation was unlikely to be granted.
"Why would you remove brush in the middle of the night when it's hard to see?" Trost said.
The proposals by the unions "are really just a way to add staffing," she said. "We've always said they're a deflection from what the real issues at the table are -- their lack of willingness to compromise on wages, benefits and medical expenses."
Almanza said, "It's unfortunate when statements from the district come out saying (concern over safety) is a smokescreen."
John Arantes, BART chapter president for SEIU Local 1021, said the district prefers to pay fines for safety violations or pricey legal fees to fight state safety regulators rather than fund safety upgrades.
"We refuse to drop it until we get it addressed," Arantes said.
"We take it seriously because we have lost lives," he said. "It is very important to us."
SEIU Local 1021 is set to meet with BART officials on Thursday to discuss supplemental issues related to the negotiations, while full-scale talks with SEIU and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 will resume next week, Trost said.
The 60-day cooling off period, which expires on Oct. 10, was ordered by a judge at the request of Gov. Jerry Brown and BART management after the agency's employees threatened to strike in early August.
The workers previously went on a four-and-a-half day strike in early July but returned to work while negotiations continued.
The two sides remain far apart -- BART board president Tom Radulovich said last week that the agency is offering a 10 percent wage hike over the next four years, while the unions are insisting on raises of 20 percent or more.
Union officials say management's latest proposal would still negatively affect workers because the wage increases would be offset by proposed increases to their contributions for health care and pension benefits.