[Marxism] Union organizing at the race track

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 15 10:58:24 MST 2004

(The always interesting Charlie LeDuff is the NY Times's only American 
Indian reporter.)

NY Times, December 15, 2004
An Effort at a Union Comes Up a Loser at the Track

ARCADIA, Calif., Dec. 13 - In the rough-and-tumble world of horse racing, 
Diego Sotelo is known as a brawler. He is a bantam of a man with a dark 
complexion and white teeth and a jaw permanently cocked prizefighter-style. 
He abstains from alcohol, appreciates women from the neck down and despises 
the horses he rides for a living as much as the rich men who own them.

For all his acumen with the fist and the whip, however, Mr. Sotelo, 40, 
picked a fight with the owners and trainers and lost. Now he is out of a 
job as an exercise rider and banned from the Santa Anita stables, which 
were home to the famed Seabiscuit.

Known as the Fox, Mr. Sotelo assumed the role of labor agitator in an 
industry historically unwelcoming to unions. At Santa Anita Park, about 15 
miles east of Los Angeles, he threatened a strike by the stable hands - the 
grooms, hot walkers and exercise riders, known as backstretch workers and 
hired by the trainers - just before the racing season resumes the morning 
after Christmas.

Backstretch workers in California have lived in such squalor that the 
state, embarrassed by newspaper reports, passed a battery of laws three 
years ago guaranteeing minimum pay and living standards in an industry to 
which they did not apply.

Mr. Sotelo says little has changed.

"When you get to this country, you are happy and it takes a couple of years 
to realize you're working for peanuts," said Mr. Sotelo, who began his 
career at age 10 on the Mexican quarter-mile tracks. "You risk your life, 
get broken down and then get thrown away like a used diaper."

He and a coterie of riders complain that they have not received a raise in 
15 years and are paid $10 for galloping a horse through its morning 
workout, an exceedingly dangerous occupation. When Santa Anita opened in 
1934 in the depths of the Great Depression, apprentice jockeys earned 50 
cents for galloping each horse. Adjusted for inflation, that is about $7 today.

"That means we got four stinking pennies a year," said Mr. Sotelo, a 
renowned exercise rider who was working about eight horses a day at his peak.

Mr. Sotelo attempted to organize backstretch employees, in accordance with 
the new laws, and it seemed a likely proposition, according to those who 
attended the meetings. But when it came time for a vote last month, 
security guards broke up the meeting after trainers complained to track 

Cowed, most riders went back to work; a few were fired, a few others got 
the $15 a horse they had been asking for. Mr. Sotelo, the leader, was 
banned from the track. He has not mounted a horse since early November and 
vows never to get back on one, as a matter of honor, until someone pays him 

"The others are cowards," he said recently over a cup of coffee. "You try 
to show them something, how to improve themselves. But you cannot change a 
mouse into a lion."

In the stables where the horses are kept, there is a village sometimes 
called Tortilla Flats. Perhaps 1,000 people live and work there, not only 
riders but also grooms who feed and clean and rub liniment into the beasts 
and walkers who cool them after they run. They usually receive no more than 
minimum wage, work seven days a week, get no overtime and are kept off the 
books, industry insiders and labor officials say. Most are immigrants who 
do not complain, for fear of being blackballed or threatened with deportation.

They live in drafty 12-foot-square rooms attached to the barns, with no 
running water, a light bulb, a socket and a concrete floor. The communal 
bathrooms are without shower curtains, infected with flies and strewn with 
soiled toilet paper.

The roads are dirt. The characters are hard-bitten men, infirm from 
alcohol, and tough-looking women who speak little.

Historically, the backstretch workers in California were exempted from 
state labor laws until the California Legislature enacted the new 
regulations three years ago. Those regulations gave backstretch employees 
the right to unionize, outlined minimum housing standards and required 
trainers to keep accurate payroll records of their employees.

The California Horse Racing Board was charged with oversight, but the board 
is composed of prominent thoroughbred owners, including its chairman, John 
Harris, a cattle rancher and horse breeder.

State labor officials say the laws are not enforced. "They're cheating," 
Dean Fryer, a spokesman for the California Department of Industrial 
Relations, the state labor department, said of the trainers. None of the 
state's seven thoroughbred tracks and nine racing fairs have been inspected 
in more than two years, he said, because when inspectors arrive, they are 
given the stall.



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