SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Bay Area Rapid Transit workers took a significant step closer Wednesday to a train stoppage that would affect hundreds of thousands of daily commuters, prompting transportation officials to warn that there could be gridlock on the region’s streets next week.

The membership of two major unions representing 2,375 BART employees voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike when their current contracts expire on June 30, labor leaders announced.

While the authorization vote doesn’t necessarily mean a walkout will happen, it does give union officials the authority to call a strike with 72-hours notice. A potential strike could begin as early as Monday morning’s commute.

“A BART strike would be disastrous, crippling our transportation system and economically paralyzing the entire region,” Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman told CBS San Francisco in an e-mail from the region’s top business-advocacy group. “Employers should prepare for the worst, and BART and the unions should buckle down and get a contract done.”

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 and Service Employees International Union Local 1221 have been embroiled in contentious contract negotiations with BART management. Talks resumed Wednesday with the aid of a state mediator at the hopes of averting a possible strike.

The unions, which represent BART’s train drivers, mechanics, station agents and maintenance workers, said they remained committed to negotiating a new contract and had no immediate plans to call a strike.

“Strike is the last option that we will have,” SEIU Local 1021 president John Arantes told KCBS.

“We’re not prepared to do that. We are prepared to bargain. We are prepared to go to the table and get an agreement,” added ATU Local 1555 president Antonette Bryant. “It is not about giving notice; it is about getting a good agreement that works for the members and the riding public.”

Among the disputes at the bargaining table are BART demands that workers contribute to pensions, pay more for health insurance, and help reduce overtime expenses. BART officials said the transit agency’s workers currently receive an average annual compensation package totaling $134,000.

The unions are insisting that new worker safety measures be put into place, with Arantes contending that “there are fewer workers, working for less money, in more dangerous conditions.”

SEIU chief negotiator Josie Mooney, who was the at the table with BART when workers went on strike in 1997 and negotiated contracts in 2001 and 2005, said that she was surprised BART management was not addressing the concerns the unions had put forward about safety.

“In my personal experience, we have not encountered this kind of recalcitrant the part of the district at this late date,” she told KCBS.

BART Board President Tom Radulovich indicated he has asked California Gov. Jerry Brown not to order a 60-day cooling off period that would delay a strike if an agreement isn’t reached by Sunday night.

In a letter to the governor, a copy of which was obtained by CBS San Francisco, Radulovich said if a strike was to occur, BART would rather face one now, when ridership is down due to summer vacations, rather than in September, when ridership returns to peak levels.

RELATED CONTENT: Download BART’s Letter To The Governor (.pdf)

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency tasked with creating a backup plan in case of a BART strike, said it was preparing to redirect up to $18.7 million in state funding for BART toward other regional transit agencies if they have to provide additional service because of a strike.

But MTC officials said the potential for a labor stoppage from the East Bay bus system AC Transit at the same time as a BART strike was further complicating the situation.

If both events happened simultaneously, the East Bay would virtually be cut off from San Francisco and the Peninsula, with huge impacts also felt in Silicon Valley and Marin County as commuters try to find alternatives to reach their place of employment.

The commission, during a meeting Wednesday in Oakland, said it planned to send letters to employers in the region encouraging them to work with employees to find alternatives to driving during peak morning and evening commute hours.

BART provides over 400,000 rides daily, including 96,000 across the San Francisco Bay in the Transbay Tube during peak commute hours, which is 50 percent more than when BART workers last held a strike in September 1997. That walkout lasted six days before a settlement was finally reached.

“The bottom line is that a BART strike will be an absolute nightmare for everyone,” Wunderman said. “Our transportation system simply does not have the capacity to absorb the more than 400,000 BART riders who will be left at the station. There will be serious pain.”

(Copyright 2013 CBS San Francisco. All rights Reserved.)


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