The BART unions' strategy to threaten a strike for the coming work week, rather than shutting down trains over the weekend, may finally put enough pressure on negotiators to reach a deal. But it leaves Bay Area commuters sweating out the fifth shutdown deadline of the past few months.
The unions and BART management headed back to the table Friday morning, less than 12 hours after a 60-day "cooling off" period expired. The gag order issued by mediators continued, and it was unclear how the talks were coming along, though a handful of state legislators and BART General Manager Grace Crunican were sitting in on the session. And unions called that an encouraging sign.
Talks ended for the day shortly after 10 p.m. and were scheduled to resume at 9:30 a.m. Saturday.
Just before the stroke of midnight Thursday, the unions announced they would not strike Friday but gave the public 72 hours notice that they would shut down BART on Monday morning if no deal is reached this weekend.
Rather then halting trains during the weekend -- when BART rider counts drop in half -- or during a light holiday week in July as in the first strike, a shutdown now threatens travelers during the peak commute season.
With that nightmarish scenario looming, and commuters groaning through yet another deadline to reach a deal, experts say both sides now have more incentive than ever to compromise and avoid igniting a public firestorm.
"If anything, if they can't negotiate an agreement, the public will be more hostile than ever," said William Gould, a Stanford emeritus professor of law who specializes in labor issues.
David Meyer, a sociology professor at UC Irvine, compared the situation to the experience of House Republicans who forced the government shutdown this month while hoping to weaken the new health care law: Not only have they failed in stopping the law, Congress and the GOP now face record-low approval ratings after the public's outcry over the partial government shutdown.
BART unions must now appease frustrated Bay Area commuters because legislators are facing mounting pressure next year to ban BART strikes, which would remove the unions' biggest bargaining chip. For management, an angry populace could spark legislation to enact binding arbitration -- taking some control out of the agency's hands -- while elected board members could be voted out of office.
"They do run that risk, unless they're really close to negotiating an agreement," said David Meyer, a UC Irvine sociology professor who specializes in public policy. While the strike threat has been looming for months, "there is always a point of going too far -- and you don't know what that point is until you've crossed it."
Polls suggest commuters have already had enough.
During the first strike in July, 51 percent of Bay Area residents said Gov. Jerry Brown should step in to stop it, according to a SurveyUSA poll commissioned by KPIX. Follow-up polls found opposition to a strike had hit 68 percent a week ago. This week, it reached 76 percent.
"They need to figure it out. I think they've had more than enough time," Shawna Dunlop said before boarding a BART train Friday.
Dunlop and members of her family take BART for part of their trips from their home in Stockton to work in San Francisco. "I probably will wind up having to give a lot of (them) a ride to work, and I'm not going to be happy."
Thursday night's last-minute decision by the unions to avert a strike produced just the latest round of anxiety for commuters.
First, unions called a strike in the wee hours of July 1, shutting down trains before most people woke up. Then management asked Brown to avert a shutdown late at night on Aug. 4. After that, a judge ordered the cooling-off period at the governor's request on the last day possible, Aug. 11.
But at least it came in the morning, so commuters were able to get a good night's sleep.
"I wake up every morning (and) hope the trains are still running," said graduate student David Kuechle, of El Cerrito. "If they're not, I'll figure something out."
Sidney Hunter, of Dublin, who manages a nonprofit called Just in Time for Foster Youth, was at the Dublin-Pleasanton BART station Friday pondering her options. She normally buys BART tickets for East Bay foster youth to get to work but was faced with a quandary this time: Should she hedge her bets by spending half the money on bus passes in case a strike happens?
She wound up buying some bus tickets just in case. The strike threat, she said, "has got us jumping around a bit."
Staff writers Rebecca Parr, Tom Lochner and Jeremy Thomas contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.