OAKLAND -- In a sign of a possible warming trend in the icy relations between BART and its two biggest unions, the parties will sit down with a federal mediator starting Thursday.

Both sides are looking to end the latest dispute in a protracted labor conflict that twice has shut down the Bay Area train agency, stranded tens of thousands of commuters and inspired support for a ban on transit worker strikes.

In dispute is a costly paid family leave provision BART management contends was mistakenly included in the final package that unions ratified Nov. 1.

The error led the nine-member elected BART board last month to authorize approval of the contract only if the unions agree to remove the contested clause.

Agency leaders say they never agreed to the costly perk, which staff estimates could cost millions of dollars depending on how many take it.

The Amalgamated Transit and Service Employees International unions refused and last week expanded their unfair labor practices lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court to include BART's refusal to honor the benefit.

"A deal is a deal," said several of their representatives who scoffed at the agency's characterization of the clause as a mistake.

Despite the heated public rhetoric, both sides have been informally floating possible fixes behind the scenes, BART board President Joel Keller of Antioch said.

"These things take awhile to percolate," Keller said. "But everyone wants to get to a resolution so we can have labor peace for the next four years and start getting the benefits of the new contract."

Representatives of SEIU Local 1021 and ATU Local 1555 could not be reached for comment.

For the unions' 2,000 mostly train operators and station agents, the new four-year contract contains almost 14 percent in wage and benefit hikes after subtracting new contributions to their pensions and slightly higher health insurance premiums.

BART, Amalgamated Transit and Service Employees International unions will sit down Thursday morning in attempt to settle the dispute over family leave
BART, Amalgamated Transit and Service Employees International unions will sit down Thursday morning in attempt to settle the dispute over family leave provision in their recently negotiated contract. ( Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group Archives)

For agency managers, they say the new contract language gives them far greater authority over how they do business, including implementing new and more efficient technology.

To settle the remaining sticking point over paid family leave, federal mediator Greg Lim will lead the latest round of talks at BART's headquarters in downtown Oakland starting Thursday morning. Lim helped the parties reach a tentative agreement in October and end a three-day strike.

BART's lead negotiator is Bruce Conhain from Fairfield-based Gummerson & Conhain Inc. The BART board recently added $70,000 to his previous $99,000 contract.

The agency let the contract expire with previous lead negotiator Thomas Hock, one of three people who signed the disputed family leave provision.

How long the parties will meet, or whether the face-to-face talks will prove fruitful, are open questions.

Keller says resolution may be difficult until after Dec. 30, when Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 holds its presidential runoff election between incumbent Antonette Bryant and challenger Chris Finn.

It is also unclear whether Amalgamated Transit Union's unresolved contract dispute at neighboring AC Transit will spill over into BART. The state-approved 60-day cooling off period in that agency's labor fight ends Dec. 22.

BART union leaders have said no strike is planned, but that could change if negotiations sour or AC Transit workers walk off the job.

In sunnier BART labor news, the members of the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees have overwhelmingly ratified their contract. The BART board is expected to ratify the deal Dec. 19.

Talks with BART's police managers and officers are ongoing.

Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com or Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.

timeline
  • April -- Amalgamated Transit and Service Employees International unions file unfair labor practices lawsuit against BART in Alameda County Superior Court.
  • May -- BART and unions begin contract negotiations.
  • July -- BART workers strike for three days.
  • August -- Gov. Jerry Brown grants a 60-day cooling off period.
  • October -- For a second time, BART workers strike for three days.
  • Oct. 21 -- BART and the unions reach a tentative agreement.
  • Nov. 1 -- Unions vote and ratify the contract.
  • Nov. 4 -- BART staff discovers that a costly family leave provision was mistakenly included in the package the unions ratified.
  • Nov. 21 -- BART board votes 8-1 to authorize the contract without the family leave provision and asks the unions to do the same.
  • Dec. 4 -- Unions expand their unfair labor practices lawsuit against BART filed in Alameda County Superior Court.
  • Dec. 12-13 -- BART and its unions scheduled to resume negotiations over the disputed family leave provision.
    Source: Bay Area News Group