Little is certain in labor negotiations, especially when it comes to the dysfunctional talks between BART and its unions. But it looks like the talks will push right up to the deadline -- or beyond.
Monday night, officials for BART's two largest unions -- Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 -- announced that they were not ready to give their customary 72-hour notice of a strike -- yet.
But that notice is a courtesy, not a requirement, and the wording of the union statement was unclear, leaving open the possibility that BART workers could walk off the job at any time after 11:59 p.m. Thursday when a 60-day cooling-off period ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown expires.
Union negotiators said they were holding off on giving notice because they want to avert a strike.
"We want to leave every opportunity open to try to get this deal done," said Antonette Bryant, president of the ATU local, reading a joint statement. "Of course, we are keeping all options on the table."
It's difficult to know whether progress is being made at the bargaining table since a federal mediator has asked both sides to keep the talks confidential.
"We are continuing to talk," said Jim Allison, a BART spokesman. "I don't want to go any further in talking about how negotiations are going."
The two sides have reached partial agreement on pensions but are still bargaining over pay increases, health insurance contributions and safety issues.
BART's last known offer was a 2.5 percent raise for each of four years, while the unions were asking for a three-year contract with raises of 3.75 percent each of the first two years of the contract and 4 percent the third year. They also propose that for each tenth of a percent ridership increases above BART projections, workers would get an additional tenth of a percent raise.
On health care, BART is proposing to limit its contribution to the amount of the lowest family plan. The unions are offering to increase their contributions -- now a flat $92 a month -- by 15 percent. While BART and the unions have agreed on pension contributions, including a formula for reimbursing employees 72 cents for every dollar they give to their pensions, they differ on whether that should be considered part of the pay raise.
The unions struck for 4 1/2 days in July before Brown successfully urged them to return to the bargaining table and talk for another 30 days. When that failed, Brown imposed a 60-day cooling-off period, which state law allows him to do once to prevent a transit strike.
After Brown ordered the cooling-off period, Art Pulaski, executive director of the California Labor Federation, called state Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern and told him the governor had make a big mistake.
"He pulled the trigger two days early," Pulaski said he told the secretary. "Things don't get done until the end. You call a 60-day cooling-off period and both sides retrench. Then nothing happens until the last couple of days."
Beginning late last week, with negotiators finally meeting daily, the two sides started narrowing the gap. But the governor, having used his lone chance to forestall a strike, is out of options aside from using his political power and charm to persuade the unions to keep talking.
BART officials say they're $89 million apart, while the unions estimate the gap at $30 million. BART includes the cost of extending the bargained wages and benefits to all of its employees, while the unions only include their members. And the unions' estimate is based on their proposed three-year contract, while BART's assumes a four-year deal.
BART labor talks are typically tense and often settled in the early-morning darkness, hours before or after a strike deadline. Irritated commuters have grown accustomed to going to sleep not knowing if BART will be running the next morning. It was supposed to be different this time, with new General Manager Grace Crunican taking a more collaborative approach at the bargaining table and using a new negotiator.