OAKLAND -- After moving closer to a deal at the negotiating table last week, BART unions said they would not issue a 72-hour notice of a strike for Friday morning -- perhaps the most encouraging sign yet that the Bay Area would escape a repeat of this summer's rail shutdown.
"We do not want a strike," Antonette Bryant, president of the local Amalgamated Transit Union, said at a brief news conference during a break from bargaining Monday evening. Flanked by several other union leaders, she added: "We want a deal."
The two unions representing 2,300 blue-collar workers issued strike notices three days prior to a work stoppage in July and before a pending strike in August that was later averted. Those warnings are not required, however, and unions left the door open for a possible walkout if a deal is not reached by Thursday night's deadline.
The strike notice is typically meant as a courtesy so the 200,000 people who ride BART round trip each day can make backup plans to get around. But union leaders over the past several months have repeatedly said they would want to give riders advance notice before shutting down trains.
BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said riders should make alternative plans -- just in case.
Halting BART service is the union's "decision to make, and the best thing is for commuters to plan ahead in case they do choose to strike," Trost said. "We don't know what their intention is."
It's unclear if any additional progress had been made Monday as mediators had urged both sides to keep quiet. Experts say silence about the closed-door talks is typically an indication that a deal is getting closer, though a gag order didn't help talks earlier this summer.
Management and unions continue to fight over pay and benefits. Workers currently make $76,500 on average in gross pay -- more than any transit employees in the state -- pay nothing toward their pensions and $92 monthly toward health care.
As of late last week, BART said it was about $89 million apart from the unions over four years, but the labor groups had pegged the gap at $30 million over three years.
Progress was reported last week when both sides swapped a series of counterproposals after months during which they had barely blinked. Using BART's math, they bridged the gap by about $23 million last week.
On the most significant issue -- pay bumps -- BART's latest offer was more than 10 percent over four years, and the unions proposed a net of about 15 percent over three years, plus bonuses if more riders than expected flock to the trains.
Despite the lack of updates at the table, the unions couldn't resist getting in a few jabs at management. Comparing it to the Congressional dispute that has shut down the federal government, Bryant said a small group of BART directors is "holding the Bay Area hostage." Unions also called for a rally in Oakland on Tuesday afternoon where hundreds of workers are expected to wield signs and chant for a favorable deal.
The workers made good on their 72-hour notice in July and walked out for 4½ days. They also issued strike notices in August before Gov. Jerry Brown stepped in to avert a shutdown. The governor has exhausted his authority to directly block a strike, however, and the 60-day cooling-off period he ordered in August expires at 11:59 p.m. Thursday.
Two polls released late last week, commissioned by KPIX and the pro-business Bay Area Council, respectfully, found a solid majority of respondents side with management over the unions, as has been the case for months.
The BART Board of Directors is expected on Thursday to approve contracts with various bus providers, at up to $400,000 a day, to provide shuttle service between the East Bay and San Francisco during a strike. BART hopes to charter 200 buses, or triple the number it initially had during the first rail shutdown.
The board, however, is not scheduled to discuss operating limited train service during a strike. The agency had been re-training 12 managers who already have state certifications in hopes of possibly running a few trains through the Transbay Tube during rush hour but has since backed off the idea after outcry from unions, who said the plan would be unsafe for passengers.
The board has scheduled possible special meetings at 5 p.m. each day through Friday in case a deal is reached and needs to be voted on quickly. Directors are also scheduled to discuss the labor negotiations in closed session on Thursday morning.
Staff writer Matt O'Brien contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.