By Jack ShinarIn an attempt to head off a backstretch union movement before it gains momentum, California trainers have formed a group called the "Employee Education Association" to tackle the issue.The California Horse Racing Board will be permitted to oversee backstretch issues related to work environment, housing conditions, and trainers' payrolls under legislation that takes effect Jan. 1, 2002. The bill requires that a portion of the proceeds realized through account wagering go to worker pension funds.
In addition, backstretch workers -- hotwalkers, grooms, and exercise riders, among others -- will have the right to union representation. California could have the first tracks in the nation with union representation, but some trainers hope it never gets that far."Our major fear is that we're having enough trouble filling our fields in this state as it is," said Ed Halpern, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers. "It wouldn't take all that much -- maybe just a couple of trainers to decide to leave the state -- to create a real crisis."By promising to get them higher wages, union representatives would likely find an eager audience on the backstretch, where most employees are at minimum-wage levels. But Halpern said that doesn't present the full picture.The Employee Education Association, headed by Southern California trainer John Sadler, came about "to educate the industry about what unionization could mean to horse racing in this state," Halpern said. The California trainers association took a neutral stand on the legislation in order to get the account wagering provisions of the bill approved."We recognize there are wage and hour issues, but we have a unique agricultural industry," Halpern said.Allen Davenport, representative of the Service Employees International Union, strongly disagrees with Halpern. He characterized backstretch conditions in California and at tracks elsewhere in the nation as "economic feudalism." His union plans to make a strong push throughout the state.Under the provisions of the bill, union cards totaling at least 30% of a working "unit" (there are four: Thoroughbreds in the north and south, Quarter Horse, and Standardbred) must be turned in and verified by the CHRB to sanction an election. Each barn would then determine for itself whether it would have union representation.A collective bargaining process, with CHRB oversight, is permitted under the legislation.Davenport said the legislation's scope is unique and the result of thousands of hours of research and negotiation. But he discounted the argument that union representation could have a negative effect on racing in the state."How can there be a shortage of horses racing in the state when there are more Thoroughbreds now than ever?" said Davenport, apparently unaware the foal crop has dropped about 29% the past 15 years. "If that's the case, they can hardly blame their employees for that. Their economy is based on what (trainers) produce. Where would they be without their employees? Who walks the horses, who grooms them, who gets them ready to race?"The workers are the ones who are responsible, and it's time they were compensated fairly for it."Halpern defended racing's record. He noted that in three separate surveys, the trainers' association determined that the average groom in the state makes $17,000 a year in wages, plus a 1% stake of purse money for an average salary of $25,000. In addition, the employee receives personal medical benefits as well as health coverage for family members, and -- with a minimum service of 1,000 hours annually -- also qualifies for a yearly pension contribution of $1,500."For a person usually with little education or experience who probably doesn't speak (English), that's pretty good," Halpern said.Halpern said many tracks offer various education programs, including English as a second language, and Santa Anita Park's Los Angeles Turf Club and Oak Tree Racing Association budget $160,000 annually for recreation programs for backstretch workers and their families, a chaplaincy program, and the Winner's Circle rehabilitation program to combat drug and alcohol abuse.