Mutuel clerks creating high drama at Meadowlands

“All My Children” and “One Life to Live” are not the only soap operas nearing the end of their long runs.

The one in New Jersey, where real lives are being tangled, real livelihoods threatened, and a real disaster is lying ahead for an entire industry, also is close to the end of its line.

May 12 is the cutoff date for this one, and the selfish stalemate creating it, in which 240 or so mutuel clerks and their colleagues are imperiling the welfare of thousands, continues.

The daily unraveling of the battle between Local 137 of the clerks and admission workers at the Meadowlands and real-estate titan Jeff Gural, who wants to take over the track and rebuild it, is not television fluff or fantasy.

It is harsh and tough and rough.

A look into the psyche of this tragedy – and it is just that – was revealed a few days ago in an industry newsletter run by freelance writer Bill Finley, whose work appears regularly at ESPN and on racing issues in the New York Times, and his co-publisher Mike Farrell.

Finley interviewed a veteran mutuel clerk facing, like his colleagues, a 20 percent pay cut or loss of his job. The pay cut is, Gural says, an ironclad go-or-no-go condition of his offer to save the track, for 35 years the flagship of world harness racing. The mutuel clerks refused overwhelmingly to vote on the issue, and six of seven members of their negotiating committee boycotted a meeting arranged by interested parties in the dispute.

Finley’s clerk interviewee is torn, as he says his colleagues are, by the choice facing them, and he said, “Put a gun to my head right now, and I couldn’t tell you how this is going to go. I think it is a 50-50 split. The vote [against voting on Gural’s offer] was like 114-12 the first time. I think a lot of people have changed their minds since then, but probably not enough to pass this. Personally, I think we should let the guy take over and see what happens. That’s the sentiment among a lot of tellers . . . You still have a lot of people to sell on this. They’d rather take their unemployment and go off into the sunset.”

The long interview continued, with the clerk explaining he had a family to support. Nowhere in his lengthy narrative did he mention the thousands of others, not union members but owners and trainers and drivers and breeders and grooms and farm workers who also face the same problem.

If that attitude prevails, it remains to be seen what Gural does in the next two weeks before Gov. Chris Christie slams the door and shuts down the Meadowlands. Christie has expressed his displeasure with the mutuel clerks recalcitrance, saying, “Apparently one group has decided on its own to put at risk the livelihoods of many others.”

Gural is currently talking with Morris Bailey, his fellow real-estate magnate who hopes to take over Monmouth Park, to consider options.

The options are few, but Finley’s mutuel clerk understood one of them. He talked of a rumor that Gural might go forward without the union, holding a job fair. Gural did just that at his Tioga Downs operation and drew hundreds in that sparsely populated area. It seems logical that he could draw thousands in the densely populated Meadowlands area, where unemployment and home foreclosures follow national trends.

This soap is high drama, but vastly more is at stake than a television series for housewives. An industry and thousands in it will survive or fall by mid-May.

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