11/21/2013 4:34PM

Jockey strikes are a thing of the past

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In 1988, many of New York’s most prominent jockeys staged a strike to protest the pay scale at the tracks run by the New York Racing Association. Two weeks later, they were back riding after a court ruled in favor of their right to act collectively and NYRA agreed to an out-of-court settlement to raise the pay scale for riders for second- and third-place finishes. Despite dozens of riders having crossed the picket line, it was widely considered a big victory for jockeys and their representative organization, the Jockeys’ Guild.

The 1988 strike was followed by a number of collective actions or threats of strikes by jockeys over the next 16 years, the last being in 2004, when more than two dozen jockeys at Churchill Downs in Kentucky and Hoosier Park in Indiana staged a “walkout” to protest what they characterized as inadequate insurance coverage covering accidents at tracks. But in marked contrast to the 1988 result, the 2004 walkout precipitated the implosion of the Jockeys’ Guild and left scars that augur against the use of a strike or walkout anytime soon.

The decline in the power of jockeys to strike or walk out is due to myriad factors, including the American public’s increasingly negative perception of collective action and unions over the past 20 years. But more specific to racing, the calamitous decision by the guild’s management in 2004 to encourage the walkout led to a wholesale reorganization of the guild and a loss of faith among racing executives, owners, and trainers in the organization’s ability to represent its members.

Following several years of confusion and palace intrigue at the organization after the 2004 strike, the guild has largely repaired the hit to its reputation since emerging from bankruptcy in 2008, in part because it’s now far less willing to take a confrontational stance.

“The industry is in a certain amount of financial stress, and the leadership of the guild understands that it’s in everybody’s best interest to work together,” said Tom Kennedy, the guild’s general counsel, who represented the riders in the 1988 strike but was cut loose from the guild in 2002 when the controversial Wayne L. Gertmenian was brought in to run the organization. (Kennedy was rehired in 2005 after Gertmenian was fired.)

“It’s always better to work out a win-win solution,” he said. “It takes an extreme set of conditions to get to a place where a strike would even be considered now.”

The backlash against strikes and walkouts by riders had been building for some time before 2004. Several times over the preceding 13 years, jockeys had threatened national walkouts for Jan. 1 if negotiations on a contract between the guild and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, a racetrack trade group, were not resolved by the end of the year. The contracts provided payments to the guild based on mount fees and required tracks to buy insurance policies covering accidents at tracks.

“I remember at the time of the last threat to strike that you had a lot of trainers at Gulfstream saying, ‘If you’re not here to ride on Jan. 1, don’t come back to the barn when you do come back,’ ” said Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the TRA since 1985. “It’s really an issue now of whether it’s a good tactic. It puts them in direct conflict with the people who employ them, and that’s never a good thing.”

The aftermath of the 2004 walkout would shape the guild’s strategies for years. All 28 riders who walked out were banned from Churchill and Hoosier, and the tracks’ parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., filed a lawsuit against the guild alleging violations of the country’s antitrust act. Gertmenian and his management team were forced out in 2005 in disgrace – Gertmenian was found to have lied on his résumé about his qualifications, the guild was hemorrhaging money, and the organization’s reputation had collapsed. It wasn’t until 2007, following the hiring of Terry Meyocks, a longtime racing official and son of a jockeys’ agent, that racing executives felt comfortable talking to guild officials. 

A number of notable developments have occurred since then. For one, many racetracks have purchased insurance policies covering as much as $1 million in medical bills for accidents at the track, while the standard policy purchased by racetracks prior to the 2004 walkout was $100,000. That has effectively removed one of the riders’ largest complaints, that tracks were not adequately providing for medical care for the people who were injured on their property.

But more importantly, the industry and the guild are now largely working together to address issues, even though funding for the organization remains a problem, especially in regard to providing for long-term care for permanently disabled riders and covering the skyrocketing costs of health care for the guild’s members and their families. Those policies used to be purchased by the guild for its members using subsidies provided by the contract with the TRA, which was allowed to lapse in 2005 and never renewed.

“Negotiations between the guild and racetracks have generally been on a much more cordial level,” Scherf said. “They still fight over some things, but they are not nearly as antagonistic as they once were.”

The guild currently negotiates with individual tracks over contributions to its programs, and those talks have resulted in a number of high-profile agreements, including agreements with Churchill Downs Inc., NYRA, and the Stronach Group, the three largest racetrack operators in the country.

Meyocks said the guild’s primary focus these days is raising awareness and money, not making waves.

“That’s not a direction I want to go in,” Meyocks said. “We want to work with the industry, not against them.”