Unionization Bill Clears Hurdle in California

A controversial proposal to make it easier for labor unions to organize California's 3,500 backstretch workers cleared its first hurdle Monday in the state Assembly.

Introduced by Assemblyman Herb Wesson, AB856 establishes guidelines for unionizing backstretch workers and mandates better living and working conditions at the state's racetracks and training facilities. Wesson, who chairs the Assembly's Governmental Organization committee, brought the bill before that panel for its first public hearing. The bill passed on to the Assembly's Labor Committee.

In essence, the bill reads a lot like Wesson's AB2760, which passed the state legislature in 2000 but was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis. The major difference: AB2760 included account wagering, but AB856 does not. At the time of his veto, Davis said he would support a bill that would "protect backstretch employees from being subjected to dismal living and working conditions" -- but without what the governor viewed as "an expansion of gambling."

Ed Halpern, executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers, said his group was neutral on AB2760 because of account wagering, but could not support this latest bill. "We are a relocatable industry. Trainers are not tied to this state," he said of California's 800 trainers. "If they perceive that something is unfair, they'll leave."

Most of the opposition voiced Monday was aimed at the bill's inclusion of a unique "card check" method to unionize individual barns. If 50% of a trainer's employees sign union cards, the barn is automatically part of a bargaining unit -- without an election. Also, the bill directs the California Horse Racing Board to turn over all home addresses and telephone numbers of backstretch employees to an organizing union if requested.

Allen Davenport, who represents the Service Employees International Union, testified that his union is prepared for that organizational effort. Traditional unionization techniques have not worked on the backstretch due to the mobility of its workers, who are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, he said.

Trainers could be part of multi-employer bargaining units or opt out to individual units, Davenport said. "Theoretically, we could have 800 units."

"This bill attempts to stack the deck in favor of the union and take an edge," Halpern said.

Many workers do not like the bill's approach, said Laura Rosier, a longtime backstretch worker from San Luis Rey Downs who presented a petition signed by 84 workers against the "card check" language. "We want to maintain our right to vote by secret ballot and our right to privacy," said Rosier, who collected the signatures in two days.

"This would certainly cause an exodus of trainers to less-regulated states," said Doug Burge, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

That's not the intention, Wesson said. "This just establishes a fair framework (for unionization)," he said. "If we switched to elections instead of card checks, 70% of this opposition would go away."

Such a switch in language may occur as the bill proceeds through the legislature, Wesson said.