Commuter rail service will resume Friday in the San Francisco Bay area after unions called off a strike, agreeing with the transit agency to extend a labor contract for a month while they continue bargaining.
Though trains were not yet running Friday morning, commuters appeared relieved and happy to get a reprieve from crowded buses and clogged roadways because of the July 4 holiday. Traffic at the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza moved smoothly and free charter buses at selected Bay Area Rapid Transit stations had ample room.
Commuter Caitlin McKenzie was stunned to hear the strike was over -- for now -- as she waited for a shuttle bus to go to her childcare job in San Francisco outside the West Oakland BART station Friday morning.
"It's over? Really? Thank God!" said McKenzie, 26, of Oakland. "So, are you sure I can take the train home?"
BART, the nation's fifth-largest rail system, will begin operating trains by 3 p.m. PDT Friday, ending a four-day strike that crippled commutes across the Bay Area, California Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern announced late Thursday.
The current contract between BART and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 1021 and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), Local 1555, will be extended for 30 days after expiring earlier this week.
"The parties will continue to negotiate just as hard as they are now," Morgenstern said. "The battle's not over. The job's not done."
She said he and two top state mediators urged the bargaining parties to agree to an extension of the current labor deal as both groups said repeatedly they were far apart in terms of reaching a new deal.
BART General Manager Grace Crunican agreed there is still a wide gap. Key sticking points in the labor dispute include salaries, pensions, health care and safety.
"Unfortunately, the issues that brought us to this point remain unresolved," Crunican said.
Josie Mooney, a chief negotiator for SEIU, Local 1021, asked the public late Thursday to help keep the parties on task.
"We stand together tonight and we expect to be standing together with a new contract at the end of August 4 and we hope to goodness that you insist that all the parties do the right thing," Mooney said.
BART serves more than 400,000 commuters each weekday. It carries passengers from the farthest reaches of San Francisco's densely populated eastern suburbs to San Francisco International Airport across the bay.
The strike began early Monday after negotiations broke off. Talks resumed Tuesday amid mounting political and public pressure. Negotiations continued on Wednesday and again for nearly 12 hours on Thursday before the parties announced the strike was over.
The stoppage caused stress and frustration in the region. Commuters lined up early in the morning to either carpool, wait for BART's free charter buses or catch ferries heading to San Francisco while enduring heavy rush-hour traffic on the Bay Bridge, especially on Monday and Tuesday.
Commuter Star Salgado, 27, of Richmond, said Friday that while she hasn't given up on BART, she may continue carpooling.
"This week was such an inconvenience that I don't know if I can put up with BART right now," said Salgado, who opted to take the transit agency's free shuttle into San Francisco on Friday. "I just want to get through today."
Prior to this week's four-day work stoppage, BART's last strike lasted for six days in 1997.
BART said workers from the two unions average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually. The workers also pay a flat $92 monthly fee for health insurance.
The unions -- which represent nearly 2,400 train operators, station agents, mechanics, maintenance workers and professional staff -- want a 5 percent raise each year over the next three years.
BART said it is offering an 8 percent salary increase over the next four years as well as reducing the amount of employee contributions it originally requested for pension and medical benefits.