By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Negotiators hoping to avert a potentially crippling commuter rail strike in the traffic-clogged San Francisco Bay Area were set to return to the bargaining table on Wednesday to try to reach a deal.
Unions agreed late on Tuesday to put off striking for the third day in a row, as talks with management wore on late into the night without a deal on a new contract, ensuring that trains would run as usual on Wednesday.
At the request of a federal mediator overseeing the talks, the sides planned to resume negotiations at 10 a.m. local time, according to a spokeswoman for the largest of two unions representing more than 2,000 Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) drivers and staff.
"We are encouraged by the progress we've achieved, and at the request of the federal mediators we will continue to bargain," the spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, Cecille Isidro, said. BART workers are also represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union.
A strike would affect about 400,000 passengers from San Francisco and surrounding areas who rely on the rail system every day and would instead be forced onto buses and other already busy commuter routes.
Adding to the pressure, a union representing workers at the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit Agency, which operates buses in many of the same communities served by BART, notified its management on Monday it could call a strike as soon as Thursday.
The BART drivers and staff have been working without a contract since June 30, and their unions have repeatedly said they were prepared to walk off the job if no deal were reached.
Two midnight deadlines for a strike have already come and gone since Sunday with no agreement.
Management has offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years for workers, and said they make an average of $79,000 plus benefits. The unions peg the average worker salary at $64,000.
They also point out that San Francisco and nearby Oakland are among the 10 most expensive U.S. cities. Because the management offer also includes a demand that employees pay a portion of their medical and retirement benefit costs, some of the 12 percent offered in raises would be immediately swallowed up by those contributions.
The unions had initially asked for a three-year contract, with a 3.75 percent raise in each of the first two years and a 4 percent raise in the last year.
BART spokesman Rick Rice has said the transit system wanted workers to contribute to pensions, starting at 1 percent in the first year and growing to 4 percent in the fourth. The agency also wanted a cap on healthcare costs, he said.
Bay Area commuters had a taste of the havoc a transit strike could bring in July, when BART employees walked off the job after their contract first expired. A strike was again threatened in August before Democratic Governor Jerry Brown intervened to seek a 60-day cooling-off period, now expired.
(Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Prudence Crowther)