By an 8-to-1 margin, thoroughbred track employees voted yesterday to accept a new contract that essentially freezes pay levels for 1 1/2 years but doesn't require workers to make any other major concessions.
"The track was looking for serious cuts," said George Murphy, business representative at Laurel/Pimlico for Local 27 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents the employees. "But when they realized they were going to have to get us out on the street to do it, they said, "OK, we'll work with you.' "
About half of the approximately 750 employees turned out at the Pikesville Hilton yesterday and voted 306-39 to accept the 18-month contract.
The mood of the membership was remarkably conciliatory. "The first meeting I've been to in 20 years where there wasn't any ranting or raving," said longtime mutuels employee Nathan Smith.
Among the workers voting on the contract were mutuels employees, admission, parking and security personnel, jockeys' valets and the starting-gate crew.
Added Rhona Fitzsimmons, who worked on the bargaining committee: "I've been at the racetrack 22 years. This is the second negotiation I've been involved in and I don't believe trying to break your employer is a viable solution. There has to be give and take. We could have done serious trouble to this company. But that doesn't help anyone."
Union president Buddy Mays said: "I really believe they were serious about making big cuts. They've had losses three out of the last four years and I've seen the arrangement they have with the bank.
"The tracks have to perform at a certain level to keep the favorable interest rate that they have on their loans right now. They have to meet those covenants or the interest rate goes back up and that could cost them $1 million or $1.5 million."
Mays said the tracks came in "looking for $2 million in relief. We did make a change in the health and welfare package by moving from Blue Cross/Blue Shield to a managed care program. That saves the company about $500,000.
"But it also works as an enhancement for our employees. That's the trend in negotiating contracts these days, one way to control costs. After that it's just a guesstimate on where the track is going to save some money."
On the minus side, Murphy said, mutuels employees will lose premium pay on the 11th and 12th races on Sundays and a supervisory teller now has the right to work the line and punch tickets.
"But on the plus side, we have improved health benefits for our junior members, gained job guarantees in outlying departments other than mutuels and formed a joint labor/management committee to improve conditions."
Mays wanted to limit the contract to 1 1/2 years to see if the current business upswing at the tracks continues and to monitor developments with the track in Virginia and the introduction of casino gambling in Maryland.
At a meeting of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association last night, Laurel/Pimlico management released its proposed 1995 stakes schedule.
Among the major changes: moving the Dixie Handicap and Pimlico Distaff to Preakness Day; carding the Washington, D.C. International on Oct. 8, three weeks before the Breeders' Cup, and breaking up the International Turf Festival races by running the Governor's Cup on Oct. 28, the same day as the Breeders' Cup, followed the next day by the Laurel Dash and the All Along Stakes.
Horsemen reacted in a hostile manner to the schedule. Trainer Donald Barr called the schedule "pathetic" and trainer Jerry Robb said too much money is being allocated for stakes races and not enough for overnight purses.