Approximately 400 members of local 1501 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers threaten to shut down some 50 of the nation's race tracks next week. Their contract with the American Totalisator Co. expires Monday at midnight.
Amtote is a wholly owned subsidiary of General Instruments Corp., with headquarters in Towson, Md. It supplies the pari-mutuel equipment to the majority of America's throughbred, harness and quarter horse tracks. The IBEW local supplies the men who repair and maintain the wagering systems, from the computers right down to the ticket machine and the odds boards.
"Depending on what part of the country you're talking about, I guess it's possible a few tracks could keep running without us," says Dion Guthrie, local 1501's business manager. "Phoenix might be an example of that. But our strike would be effective in any high-union area. For example, the retail clerks union in Maryland has assured us of its full support, if we go out, and so has the labor council in California. With them backing us, the tracks would be forced to close."
Job security and wage increases are central to the negotiations currently in progress, according to the union.
"The company has offered us $6 this year, increase across the board this year," Guthrie declared. "But what's more important is that the company wants the right to use technicians with less seniority - men on the bottom of the pay scale - over those that have been on a circuit for years, and ship the men with greater seniority 200 to 400 miles up the road."
"That's totally inaccurate," countered James Pierce, the president of Amtote. "It's the first time I've heard that charge mentioned."
A senior electrician at the track makes from $18,000 to 20,000 a year, working a six-day week that includes Sunday in some areas. Beginners earn $13,000 to $14,000.
Only a few of the tracks now open would escape the strike that. Guthrie insists, is a "real possibility." "If things stay the way they are in the negotiations, there is no question there will be one," he remarked.
Pierce believes negotiations are "about where you'd expect them to be" at this point, and considers it "a little premature to predict the conclusion. In our 40-year history, there has never been a strike, certainly there's not a race track in the country that, wants to be shut down. Hopefully, there won't be. We will be talking daily with the union."
Only 12 IBEW members are involved with the Bowie meeting now in progress. Aqueduct, in New York, has a contract with another tote company, but New York OTB's main computer center is manned by American Totalisator. A strike would create pandemonium inasmuch as many tracks undoubtedly would try to run, anyhow, even if they had to resort to manual calculation in the computer room.
"We would continue to operate at as many race tracks as possible by using our supervisory personnel," Pierce said. "That certainly would be true for OTB in New York. I don't know exactly what the effect of a strike would be nationally."
At stake, possibly, is a delayed start for the brand new world of race-track betting that Amtote plans to unveil in May in Ontario. There, new machines will allow the selling and cashing of tickets to be done at the same window.
A bettor will be able to tell the mutuel clerk what number he wants, in what denomination, in whatever pool, whether it be win-place-show, the exacta or the triple. If his selection wins, the bettor may return to the same window, where the clerk will put the ticket in a machine, and have it validated, with the payoff printed on the ticket.
Such a machine is bound to be hard at work soon in the United States. The tracks can't wait for it, knowing that the number of clerks they will need will be reduced substantially. No longer would the sellers and the cashiers take turns watching each other work. Business will be brisk at all the windows all the time.
"It will speed up wagering for the benefit of the patron," said Pierce. "A bettor can place a $2 win, $5 exacta or $15 trifecta in the same line."
So much for the propaganda from both sides. The odds are 10-to-1 or higher that such a strike will not occur. The tracks have too much to lose.
Bowie and the Maryland tracks are still negotiating with the Retail Store Employes Union, Local 692, which now represents the mutuel clerks and employes of several other departments such as admissions, parking and security. The union contract expired Jan. 1. Talks were held Wednesday and Thursday with still no substantial progress reported.