Judge OKs Bay Area transit strike reprieve

San Francisco Bay Area commuters got a reprieve from a potential transit strike when a judge on Sunday granted California Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for a 60-day cooling-off period in negotiations between the Bay Area Rapid Transit Agency and two of its largest unions.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow ordered the unions and BART not to threaten or engage in a strike through midnight on Oct. 10. BART and the two unions are expected to continue negotiations while the injunction is in place.

The strike, or even the threat of one, will “endanger the public’s health safety or welfare,” Karnow said in his order.

During an unusual Sunday morning court session before the order was issued, Karnow said the hearing had nothing to do with the merits of the contract dispute between BART and the unions. Attorneys for the two sides did not object to the injunction although union leaders had said earlier that Brown’s request reduced the pressure to reach a deal.

BART spokesman Rick Rice said in a statement that BART was grateful that Karnow granted the governor’s request. BART made a new contract offer on Saturday in hopes of reaching a deal before Sunday night, he said. Calls to union officials were not immediately returned.

The governor indicated he would seek a 60-day cooling-off period on Friday, as union leaders warned commuters that they were prepared to strike and shut down BART today for the second time this summer if they didn’t reach an agreement on a new contract over the weekend.

The unions went on strike last month, stopping BART service for four days. The shutdown snarled traffic on roadways and left commuters facing long lines for buses and ferries.

BART, the nation’s fifth largest rail system, serves more than 400,000 commuters each weekday.

Sandy Zhou, 22, said her 40-minute commute on BART to work at a San Francisco Metro PCS store turned into a three-hour ordeal by bus during the strike. She applauded the reprieve.

“As long as it keeps the trains running, do whatever you have to do,” she said. “I’m all for higher wages, but I need to get to work.”

Negotiations between BART and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 and Service Employees International Union Local 1021 began months ago, but the two sides remained tens of millions of dollars apart on wages, pensions and health care benefits last week.

BART said workers from the two unions now average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually. The workers pay nothing toward their pensions and pay a flat $92 monthly fee for health insurance.

The unions were set to go on strike again on Aug. 5 when Brown intervened and appointed a panel to investigate the labor dispute. He issued the request for the cooling-off period after the panel concluded a strike would significantly harm public welfare.