OAKLAND (CBS SF) – Negotiators for BART and unions representing about 2,400 employees are taking a breather Monday after Gov. Jerry Brown intervened to at least temporarily avert a strike.

Brown late Sunday night appointed a three-person panel to investigate the contract dispute between BART and its two biggest unions. The stalled negotiations led to a four-and-a-half day strike at the beginning of July and nearly resulted in another strike that would have begun Monday morning.

The panel will conduct a fact-finding probe of the negotiations, which began on April 1, and will report back to Brown within seven days.

Brown took action after BART’s board of directors asked him to declare a 60-day cooling off period—a request he won’t consider until after the fact-finding is completed.

BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said the transit agency was operating normally Monday and is preparing information about its finances and unfunded capital needs in preparation for the fact-finding process.

Leah Berlanga, a negotiator for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents 1,430 mechanics, custodians and clerical workers, said no new contract talks have been scheduled so far but that her union’s members and members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents 945 station agents, train operators and clerical workers, held a rally at the plaza at the Lake Merritt station in Oakland at noon.

Berlanga said union leaders “want to update our members about what’s going on and stand strong as we go through this whirlwind process and prepare for the next step.”

The BART board’s request for a cooling-off period was a 180-degree switch from its previous position; in June, it said it wouldn’t request a cooling-off period because if there had to be a strike it would be better to have one in the summer than in the fall, when there are more passengers.

BART General Manager Grace Crunican repeated that position as late as Friday afternoon, telling reporters at a packed news conference that the transit agency wouldn’t make such a request because “the play is at the table” and ultimately the two sides would have to come to an agreement on their own.

Trost said Monday, “We avoided asking for a cooling-off period for as long as possible but we decided that asking for one was the only way to keep the trains running.”

Trost said BART asked the unions on Sunday to extend their contracts for another seven days so that the two sides could keep negotiating while train service continued but that the unions rejected that request.

She said if Brown grants a 60-day cooling off period, BART hopes that negotiators will continue to make progress in their talks and that an agreement can be reached well before that period expires.

The key issues in the negotiations are wages, pension and health care contributions by employees, and safety.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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