Strike Threatened by Irish Racing Officials

Dispute centers around cuts to wages and expenses by the Irish Turf Club.

A battle over imposed cuts to wages and expenses by the Turf Club in Ireland means that race day officials are planning to strike on Sunday, Feb. 28, with race meetings at Leopardstown and Clonmel under threat from the proposed industrial action.

The unprecedented dispute arose after the Irish government slashed funding for the Irish racing industry this year by 23% due to the financial downturn, which has hit  the country’s Celtic Tiger economy hard.

These cutbacks resulted in Horse Racing Ireland announcing a series of cost-cutting measures, including a 10% reduction in prize money for 2010 and an 11% cut from the Irish Turf Club’s integrity budget.

The Irish Turf Club met with the Turf Club Officials Association, which has 32 members, and representatives of the trade union Mandate earlier this month to discuss the proposed savings to staff costs. The talks, however, broke down after 13 hours of negotiating over two days.

The Turf Club cited “unrealistic pre-conditions” set by Mandate and the TCOA. These included the guarantee of a 3% pay increase for all TCOA members at the start of 2012, which the Irish Turf Club was not willing to agree to because of the uncertain economic conditions.

While admitting that industrial action is far from ideal, Mandy Kane, divisional organizer of Mandate, argued: “You simply cannot go about business in the way that the Turf Club has.

“They have already unilaterally imposed income cuts on our members and are now attempting to impose further cuts which will have a devastating effect, not only on our members and their families’ standards of living, but also on the integrity of the horse racing industry in Ireland.

“We have stated previously that while we accept that cost-cutting measures may be necessary, we are opposed to the manner in which the Turf Club has gone about this. They haven’t engaged meaningfully in negotiations and have attempted, over several years, to deteriorate the terms and conditions of their employees without agreement with the officials or their union.”

Although unwilling to comment on the proposed industrial action, the Irish Turf Club has issued a press release which stated: “While it was not the wish of the Turf Club to conduct its industrial relations by press release or, at this point in time, to comment on the upcoming industrial action by officials, we believe we have no option but to respond given the level of misinformation.”

The Club said 77% of all Irish Turf Club integrity expenditure was spent on staff and staff-related costs and that substantial savings would have to be made following the cut in government funding that has driven annual integrity funding down to 6.4 million euros from 7.9 million euros.

The Club disputes the trade union’s “grossly misleading” assertion that officials had been asked to accept a 36.5% pay cut. In the first salary reduction, staff members are being asked for an average salary reduction of 7% compared to 2009 according to the Club.

The Club asserted: “At all times, The Turf Club has sought to preserve the jobs of its officials and to ensure the continuing integrity of Irish racing to the highest standards. That remains our priority.

“While we recognize the excellent job our officials do for racing, they are well remunerated for that work. The fact is we must make savings in staff costs. These savings will affect all employees, not just our racing officials.

“The level of drug testing and the level of microchip checking for horse identification will be unchanged and potentially enhanced in 2010. Cost reduction does not mean a reduction in service to Irish racing. No cuts being made will impact on the integrity of Irish racing. To suggest otherwise is being deliberately misleading.”

Ireland’s Labour Court, which acts as an industrial relations tribunal, could become involved in trying to solve the dispute. The Irish Turf Club officials include inspectors of courses, clerks of courses, clerks of scales, official handicappers, starters, judges, veterinary officers, veterinary assistants, medical officers, stewards’ secretaries, and security officers.

But, if the strike takes place, the Irish Turf Club hopes the race days on Feb. 28 at Leopardstown and Clonmel will go ahead through the use of part-time staff.