BART workers signaled willingness Tuesday to go on strike, a work stoppage that could come as early as next week.
Labor contracts with BART's five unions are set to expire June 30. The transit agency and the unions have been haggling over pension contributions and wage increases for several months without much progress.
BART workers last went on strike for six days in September 1997.
Workers voted to authorize a strike in 2009, but a last-minute deal averted a work stoppage.
That deal was on workers' minds Tuesday at the Metro Building near Lake Merritt in Oakland, where some of the 1,400 BART workers organized with Service Employees International Union Local 1021 — computer technicians, mechanics, inspectors, cleaners and those in other trades — gathered to cast their ballots.
Elsewhere, workers with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents the roughly 900 transit operators and station agents, also cast ballots.
In 2009, during the worldwide economic crisis, workers agreed to forgo some $100 million in compensation to keep the trains running, noted computer technician Joe Bomberger, a member of the negotiating team who was one of many workers who sported a button boasting the message "I voted to strike."
This time around, with the economy picking up and BART ridership at an all-time high, management asked workers to begin contributing 7 percent of their paychecks toward pensions — they currently contribute nothing, but also do not receive Social Security — along with a 1 percent raise over four years, according to the unions.
The transit agency is also asking for some workers to contribute more toward health care since employees pay a flat rate of $92 each month for health insurance, no matter the plan or how many people are covered.
Union members, such as computer technician Tru Doan, say the BART proposal amounts to a pay cut as prices to live in the Bay Area continue to rise.
"I think we will [strike]," he said.
Rick Rice, a spokesman for BART management, declined to discuss specifics about the negotiations, but noted that "there have been compromises offered by management" since talks began.
BART has a $1.5 billion budget, about $402 million of which is salaries and wages, which are scheduled to increase by $20 million in the coming year if no changes to the contract are put in place.
BART needs significant capital improvements such as new cars and upgrades to the 41-year-old rail network, and cannot perform this work unless the unions agree to concede on the pension issue, Rice said.
Results of Tuesday's vote are expected to be made public at 9 a.m. today.
Should a strike be authorized, "it's not going to approach our change at the table," Rice said.
Negotiations are scheduled to resume today.
If workers authorize a strike and a work stoppage is called, the unions say they will give BART management a 72-hour notice.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.