06/26/2003 11:00PM

Gate workers agree to work as talks go on

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Members of the starting gate crew based in Southern California agreed to continue working on Friday while contract negotiations continue over a salary dispute, a racetrack official said.

Talks between the gate crew staff, also known as assistant starters, and management from several racetracks has been held in recent weeks without resolution. A meeting was conducted on Friday at Hollywood Park between the two groups, with only an agreement reached to continue talks.

Early Friday, there was talk on the backstretch that assistant starters could strike on Friday night, but industry officials said such action would be illegal.

According to a California Horse Racing Board official, the assistant starters, members of the Teamsters Local 495, must give a 15-day notice of their intent to strike. Such a notice was delivered to the racing board on Wednesday, meaning a strike could occur on July 11 if an agreement is not reached.

Hollywood Park officials were optimistic that there would not be a disruption in racing. A contingency plan was discussed by Hollywood Park until Friday's decision to continue negotiations was reached.

"We're holding out hope we reach a point that we can negotiate reasonably and in good faith and avoid this kind of action," said Rick Baedeker, president of Hollywood.

Most assistant starters receive $125 per day, plus benefits, according to a source. They are seeking a three-tier pay scale based on experience. Assistant starters with eight or more years experience would receive $225 per day, those with three years experience would be paid $175 and assistant starters with less experience would receive $140 per day.

Several members of the gate crew did not report to work for Friday morning workouts at Hollywood Park.

"They all called in sick," said Gary Brinson, the track's starter. "They kept saying, 'Gary, this is not against you, but we have to do this.' "

"Right now, they're about a mile apart," said one person familiar with the negotiations.

The biggest stumbling block is the pay increase.

"The tiered system is no problem," Baedeker said. "It's the amount of money they're asking for. The increases are huge."