OAKLAND -- Both sides in the BART labor fight announced concessions Thursday as they inched closer to averting a strike that could shut down the popular rail service as soon as Monday.
Facing a Sunday night deadline to reach a deal before the workers' current contract expires, BART management on Thursday brought to the bargaining table new proposals on pay, health care and pension benefits and safety upgrades. The Service Employees International Union, meanwhile, said it was willing to start paying toward pension plans -- a major sticking point thus far -- and lengthen the amount of time employees have to work before earning retiree medical benefits.
It was the first publicly disclosed movement from either side since a state mediator was brought in last week. But neither side Thursday saw a deal as imminent.
BART spokesman Rick Rice declined to disclose the agency's latest offer but characterized it as "moving slightly toward the union's" proposal in all key areas. Management also unveiled plans for a new prototype for outside escalator canopies in response to workers' safety concerns.
"We're hoping that by showing some movement we'll have more productive conversations," Rice said.
Leah Berlarga, a spokeswoman for the local SEIU, BART's largest labor union, said the offers proposed by management were "not significant."
"We're very disappointed," she said. "This was really more of a media show for them."
Berlarga added that the union is now willing to start paying toward employees' pension plans, saying their contributions would be similar to those of other public agencies.
BART workers are among the few public employees in the Bay Area who contribute nothing toward their retirement, a huge concern for management as it looks to save money over the next several decades to fund $16 billion in infrastructure improvements.
Workers also offered to move back from five years to 15 years the period of time employees must be on the job before being eligible for medical benefits once they retire. Berlarga said that move would save the agency "millions of dollars."
The proposals come a day after two unions representing more than 2,300 train operators, maintenance employees and other blue-collar workers said 99 percent of their members voted to authorize a strike as soon as Monday should negotiations fail. BART officials had said Wednesday the strike vote would not change its negotiating stance.
"The strike authorization was not a surprise," Rice reiterated Thursday. "I would in no way characterize this as caving in."
Both sides had been far apart heading into the latest talks inside a conference room at Oakland's Kaiser Center.
BART had initially offered a conditional 4 percent pay increases over four years, but union workers have been asking for 23 percent in wage hikes over three years. Berlarga said management's latest offer sticks to the 4 percent raise, but makes it guaranteed instead of tied to performance.
BART also wants workers to begin paying toward their pension benefits and increase their $92 a month flat fee toward medical costs.
Negotiations were set to continue late Friday night and into the weekend.
The average BART employee made about $83,000 in gross pay in 2012. Including benefits and other perks, BART's average cost for each employee was about $116,000 last year. Virtually all of BART's 3,200-plus employees are scheduled to receive a 1 percent raise on Monday as part of their current four-year deal.
The BART board on Thursday called a special meeting Friday to discuss the labor talks. Although the negotiations will be in closed session, the public can comment at the start of the meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. at the Kaiser Center in Oakland.
Thursday marked 88 days since the negotiations began. The two sides began with 91 days to reach a deal.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.
What: BART board will meet in closed session to discuss labor negotiations
When: Public comment begins at 5 p.m. Friday before board's closed session
Where: BART board room in the Kaiser Center, at 20th and Harrison streets in Oakland, Room 344