11/04/2005 1:00AM

Congressmen write labor board on riders' behalf

Email

Seven U.S. representatives have sent a letter to the chairman of the National Labor Relations Board urging the board to allow jockeys at U.S. racetracks to conduct collective bargaining negotiations with tracks.

The letter, which was written by Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, a Democrat, and signed by six other Democratic representatives, was dated Nov. 2 and sent to the chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, Robert Battista. Citing an investigation by the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations into riders' health issues, the letter calls on the NLRB to "protect the rights of jockeys, exercise riders, or any employees of the horse or dog racing industries."

All of the signers are members of the subcommittee, which held its first hearing into jockeys' issues on Oct. 18. During that hearing, management of the Jockeys' Guild, an organization that claims to represent 1,200 riders and has been advocating to represent riders as a union, came under intense, bipartisan criticism from subcommittee members.

Federal intervention into the racing industry has been fiercely opposed by racetracks in the past, and on Friday, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations released a statement in response to the letter indicating that it will oppose any efforts by Congress to impose new regulations on the industry or grant jockeys new bargaining powers.

Stupak was one of two subcommittee members who indicated during the Oct. 18 hearing that he felt that government intervention was warranted to address riders' health and welfare issues. The other was Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who also signed the letter.

The letter states that "the old argument that jockeys and freelance exercise riders are independent contractors should be laid to rest," and further states that in racing, "the workplace is provided and the work rules established by the racetracks."

The status of jockeys and their right to bargain with racetracks is expected to be a central topic of the next subcommittee hearing, which has been scheduled for Nov. 17. The chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, a Republican, has said that representatives of racetracks and industry organizations would be called as witnesses during the hearing.

Whitfield and Stupak also sent a letter dated Nov. 3 to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asking the secretary, Michael Leavitt, to direct the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to "provide a set of recommended standards for racetracks to operate under," including weights and body fat for jockeys, tracks conditions, and safety equipment, to create a "comprehensive inventory of safety hazards at racetracks."

U.S. racetracks have always held that jockeys are independent contractors who are employed by racehorse owners. In the statement prepared in response to the letters and to press inquiries, the TRA, a racetrack trade group representing 43 tracks, said that racetracks will oppose any effort by jockeys to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board, which rejected a similar call for jockeys to unionize in 1973.

"There is no argument, as purported by the letter to the NLRB, that jockeys and freelance exercise riders are independent contractors," said the statement. "It is fact, which has been acknowledged and staunchly defended by jockeys, that they are independent contractors. In certain jurisdictions, there have been judicial determinations of this status. Jockeys ride when and where they please and for whom."

The TRA statement also said that TRA tracks are "disappointed by the apparent rush to judgment" by the subcommittee's letter in advance of the Nov. 17 hearing. Chris Scherf, the executive vice president of the TRA, is expected to testify at that hearing along with many officials of TRA tracks, although no witness list has been produced yet.