Track union expects tough talks

September 22, 1994|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Writer

The tone was somber, but optimistic. The issues were touched upon, but not explored in depth. The talk was of unity.

Members of Local 27 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union convened to discuss their coming contract negotiations with Maryland Jockey Club management at a Pikesville hotel yesterday and left with the understanding that difficult negotiating days are ahead.

The union represents a disparate group of track workers, including mutuel clerks, parking attendants, starting gate personnel, admissions workers and security guards.

Its five-year contract with track management expires Dec. 31, and the self-interests of the organization's different factions must be consolidated into a common goal before negotiations begin.

No one is expecting settlement to be easy in light of track management's $7.3 million losses last year and the increase in automated betting equipment at Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft and the off-track betting sites.

"We realize there is going to be difficulty in negotiations," said acting president Buddy Mays.

"But we feel we can come to an agreement Dec. 31. We're looking to go forward and we think we can offer management some constructive changes."

With about one-third of the union members attending what amounted to an exploratory meeting, concerns were expressed about the two-tier pay scale included in the current contract, the geographical area where the contract applies, and the standard issues of wages and benefit packages.

"Health and welfare are always first," said Ed Freeburger of the admissions department. "But the two-tier system is definitely an issue.

"It takes eight years for a union member to reach top scale, and it's not fair that that member cannot get the yearly raises of the older employees who are doing the same job after he learns the job in a couple of years."

Mutuels department employee Ted Cox noted his concerns about the "geographical circle" covered by the contract in light of the impending addition of Timonium as an OTB site and the question of pay for cashiers and clerks at such far-flung locations as the OTB parlor near Colonial Beach, Va., and Poor Jimmy's restaurant in Cecil County.

"We should have some guarantee that the contract covers the whole network," said Cox. "I understand they are hiring people for a lot less money at some sites."

The union enters this bargaining period with a new negotiator, Bruce Drasal, and Mays as its new president.

Mutuels personnel have traditionally outnumbered all other groups in the membership, but that gap has narrowed because of the incursion of betting machines.

Freeburger said he understands the tracks' losses will be a factor in the talks, but added "it's easy to lose money on paper. Every racetrack loses money. But for some reason, there is always somebody standing there to buy it.

"This is a multimillion-dollar industry that turns over $2 million on weekdays, $3 or $4 million on weekends, and who knows how much on days like the Preakness and Maryland Million. These people here work hard to help bring all that in."

With more than three months remaining before the deadline, there was no talk of a possible strike. The mood was wait and see, but everyone agrees that solidarity will be more necessary than ever for the union.

"Unity is the primary factor for us," said Cox. "I don't know the problems of security or admissions, but if we can all take what we have in common and merge the ideas into one solid contract, we'll all be better off."

"What we have to stress is the common interest, the track," said union business manager George Murphy. "This will be a tough contract, but it's nothing we can't all overcome."

Those attending represented a cross-section of departments.

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