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Belmont workers threaten to strike before third Triple Crown race

By Leigh Remizowski, CNN
updated 5:50 AM EDT, Wed June 6, 2012
Horses and exercise riders train Tuesday during a morning workout at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.
Horses and exercise riders train Tuesday during a morning workout at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 80 racetrack workers have threatened to go on strike
  • Saturday's race could see I'll Have Another win the Triple Crown
  • Union voted to authorize strike over wages, health care dispute
  • Racing officials call possible strike "extremely self-serving"

(CNN) -- A possible workers strike at Belmont Park racetrack on Long Island, New York, could rein in I'll Have Another's chance at the coveted Triple Crown title on Saturday.

More than 80 of the racetrack's maintenance workers and starters have threatened to go on strike in the days leading up to the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown.

The workers, who take care of the grounds and racetrack at Belmont in addition to putting the horses in the gate, have been embroiled in a contract dispute with the New York Racing Association over wages and employee contributions to health care costs since 2010, said Vincent McElroen, financial secretary of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 union.

The union voted to authorize a strike more than a week ago, he said.

"They're trying to get a message to the employer that this is serious stuff," McElroen added.

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Racing association officials issued a statement calling UBEW Local 3's potential strike "extremely self-serving," alleging that the union is using "the attention and excitement of a Triple Crown attempt to further its own agenda."

I'll Have Another -- the 3-year-old colt who claimed victory in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes this year -- would be the first horse to take the Triple Crown in 34 years. Since 1990, only seven horses have won the first two legs of the title.

Racetrack officials are expecting a crowd of more than 100,000 for Saturday's race.

McElroen said the timing of the potential strike has nothing to do with the Belmont Stakes.

"We've been negotiating for 24 months," he said. "We've gotten nowhere, and the workers are fed up."

Part of the dispute revolves around the definition of the workweek.

In their former contract, which ended after a year-long extension in early 2011, UBEW workers were paid overtime on weekends, McElroen said. But in 2012, the racing association changed the workweek to reflect Belmont's Wednesday through Sunday race schedule, eliminating weekend overtime pay.

"This change resulted in a drastic reduction in their take-home pay," McElroen said.

UBEW workers at Belmont have also had to start paying into their health insurance benefits and are no longer given retiree medical benefits, he added.

In the statement, New York Racing Association officials responded that "Local 3 is unwilling to pay a reasonable share of the cost to provide these benefits and they refuse to work with us to create shifts that reflect the reality of how a race track operates."

McElroen would not comment on the likelihood of a strike this weekend but said that the union "is not one to frivolously go out on strike."

"(The New York Racing Association) took the position that it's our way or the highway when they implemented these unilateral changes," he said. "The workers are not going to accept that."

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