UPDATE 3-San Francisco rail workers plan to strike on Friday after talks break down
break down@ (Adds reaction to strike announcement, details on talks)
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Commuter rail workers in the traffic-clogged San Francisco Bay Area appeared set to strike on Friday after talks with management over a new contract broke down, with a union official saying only a last-minute "miracle" could prevent a walkout.
A rail strike would throw the morning commute into chaos in a Northern California region that already has among the worst traffic in the nation, and where the commuter trains are used for more than 400,000 rides each day.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) management and employee unions have been at loggerheads for months over pay and benefits for more than 2,000 train drivers and other union workers who are demanding large pay raises in part to offset being asked to contribute to their pensions and other benefits.
By Thursday, union officials said both sides had finally reached an overall understanding on economic issues such as pay and worker contributions to pensions and healthcare, but remained at odds over workplace rules. It remained murky as to precisely what details about workplace rules had foiled a deal.
"At midnight tonight, unless there were something to change, workers will be forced out on strike," said Roxanne Sanchez, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, one of two main unions in the talks.
A final negotiating session that began at 10 a.m. local time (1700 GMT) on Wednesday ended more than 28 hours later on Thursday afternoon with the two sides splitting up, the union said in a statement. BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost also confirmed talks had ended.
Only a "miracle" could bring the two sides together on Thursday night to avert a strike, Josie Mooney, the chief negotiator for the Service Employees International Union local in the pending strike told the San Jose Mercury News.
"This is a management strike caused by their unwillingness to make the deal," Antonette Bryant, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which is also involved in the talks, told reporters.
A federal mediator who has been involved in the talks and who had previously reported that the sides were making progress, George Cohen, said on Thursday that they had been "unable to bridge the gap" in talks, and that federal mediation efforts would end.
The planned strike was tough news for many commuters in the Bay Area who have gone to bed most nights this week uncertain if trains would be running in the morning.
A walkout would be the second on the rail system this year, after BART workers went on strike for four and a half days in July, forcing some residents to miss work and others to endure commutes of three hours or more.
"I think it's kind of ridiculous for them to keep everyone on the edge and then call a strike at the last minute," said Marcella Lentini, 25, who works in marketing and commutes from Oakland to San Francisco.
BART would offer limited charter bus service for commuters during the strike, but that would only serve 6,000 people a day at select locations, the agency said on its website.
Under the terms of the last contract offer made public, BART management said it offered a 12 percent pay raise over four years to workers who they say earn on average $79,000 a year, plus benefits. The unions put the average worker's salary at $64,000.
Union leaders have justified their demands for higher pay in part by pointing out that San Francisco and nearby Oakland are among the 10 most expensive U.S. cities to live.
Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at University of California at Berkeley, said the union also hoped to make up for years of stagnant wages during the economic downturn. Meanwhile, BART officials were seeking to conserve resources to update outdated parts of the transit system, he said.
But the SEIU's Sanchez complained that BART management, after reaching a general agreement on pay and benefit contributions, had then wanted to "fundamentally and significantly change the conditions under which we work."
BART General Manager Grace Crunican told reporters management did not want a strike, but said: "These are work rules that are essential to maintaining the future efficiency and effectiveness of the agency."
One rule change BART management has sought is the ability to automate delivery of pay stubs to employees, Crunican said.
For its part, the union seeks to retain whistleblower protections for workers who reveal wrongdoing by managers, and wants employees to keep the right to be placed on light duty when recovering from an injury, said SEIU spokesman Mark Mosher.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)