The Maryland Jockey Club and its employees at Pimlico Race Course and other tracks have agreed “in principle” Friday to a new employment contract — possibly averting a strike the union workers threatened to begin before next week’s Preakness Stakes.
The labor strife at Pimlico was just the latest bout of ill fortune to befall Old Hilltop this year, as its owners and elected officials battle over whether the Preakness will run at the dilapidated, 149-year-old track after next year.
“The Maryland Jockey Club will continue to engage in good faith negotiations with the representatives of UFCW Local 27 and we look forward to reaching an agreement in the near future,” said Tiffani Steer, an official with The Stronach Group, which owns the jockey club, in an email.
Officials declined to provide details about pay raises in the three-year proposed contract, but the tentative agreement was confirmed by Joel Smith, an attorney for the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 27.
“We’ve reached an agreement in principle that needs to be ratified within the next couple of days,” Smith said. “We’re pleased we reached a deal.”
The contract of the 149 union members who work at Pimlico and Laurel Park, as well as at the jockey club’s operations in Timonium and Bowie, expired Dec. 31, 2017.
The union held a vote Monday at Pimlico and Laurel Park that asked members to cast “strike or no strike” ballots, according to six union members who attended the meetings but requested anonymity because they’re not allowed to speak publicly about the process. And some voiced concerns about keeping their jobs.
Those members said the vote overwhelmingly supported going on strike before next Friday’s Black Eyed Susan kicks off the state’s biggest weekend of horse racing.
A strike by the UFCW — which represents betting window tellers, parking valets, security officers, part-time employees and others — could have hurt the track’s ability to handle the millions of dollars that nearly 200,000 spectators will wager and spend at the Preakness and Black Eyed Susan.
The union members described an initial offer that they said the Jockey Club presented: a 0.75 percent pay raise by the end of a three-year contract. That was less than the union’s request for 3.03 percent raises in each of the next three years, according to the union members familiar with the negotiations.
The Old Grandstand — the last remaining historic section of Pimlico Race Course — is being shut down a month before the upcoming Preakness Stakes after an engineering firm determined that 6,670 seats in the open-air seating area “is no longer suitable to sustain that level of load bearing weight.”
The vote to reject the Jockey Club’s offer also included the authorization for a strike before the weekend that generates the bulk of Pimlico’s annual revenue, which was $26.5 million last year.
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who represents the area, said he was not aware of the dispute but he hoped for a resolution before the racetrack’s big weekend.
“Collective bargaining is an essential right of workers protected under state law,” Rosenberg said. “I would hope there would be good faith negotiations on both sides with the goal of reaching a satisfactory agreement before next Friday.”
The threat of a strike among its core workers — not the hundreds of temporary employees hired for Preakness weekend — transpired in a year of several headaches for the track and The Stronach Group.
The Jockey Club lost its fight in Annapolis to pass a bill that could have helped the company establish a “super track” at Laurel Park and perhaps eventually close Pimlico and move the second jewel in horseracing’s Triple Crown there. The company faced criticism for spending the bulk of its state subsidies for racetrack improvements at Laurel instead of Pimlico, and for the housing conditions of people who live and work on the backstretch.
Shortly after the bill died in April in the General Assembly, Stronach closed nearly 7,000 seats deemed too unsafe to bear the weight of Preakness spectators. The timing of the announcement led several Baltimore-area officials, including Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, to accuse the company of orchestrating the “disaster or emergency” that state law demands in order to move Preakness away from Pimlico.
State and local lawmakers have said for years they do not want to see the Preakness leave Baltimore. Yet no one raised any alarms as Pimlico's owner was focusing most of its finances of turning Laurel Park into a "super track" that would host the third leg of the Triple Crown.
Then, last week, two of the best Kentucky Derby horses — the official victor and the disqualified one — announced they were skipping Preakness, guaranteeing no possibility of a Triple Crown winner.
Stronach officials said they do not want to rebuild Pimlico, a project estimated to cost more than $400 million. Consolidating their business operations at a new “super track” at Laurel Park would help the company improve its finances and rejuvenate horse racing, they said.
The company reported combined operating losses for Pimlico and Laurel Park to the Maryland Racing Commission as $15 million in 2018, 66.6% more than the nearly $9 million combined loss in the prior year
The Jockey Club had until Friday to correct other issues that had been reported to the racing commission last week in the engineering report from March that led to the seat closures. The company provided the “structural condition assessment report” to the commission and the city under confidentiality agreements because of pending litigation the city has filed against the jockey club.
Stronach officials said the issues were related to standard deterioration of a facility that is over a century old.
A May 6 letter from Mike Hopkins, the commission’s executive director, to the Jockey Club said the company had until Friday to make sure areas with problems at Pimlico “have restricted access and repair completed prior to any public event.”