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Lonesome Cowboys, Unite

They're trampled, tossed and gored as a matter of course. But will America's quintessential individualists be corralled into a contestants' union?

September 02, 1996|KELLY CANDAELE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HOUSTON — Rob Lyman's horse paws the ground, penned in on three sides by the wooden planks of the chute. Both rider and horse focus on the tiny trip wire in front of the cage that holds them back. A moment later the wire snaps as the horse erupts in a fury, bolting forward, sending a cloud of dirt into the air. Lyman, the reins in his left hand, is already leaning to his right, waiting for the right moment to slide onto the 500-pound steer being pushed toward him by a rider on a second "hazing" horse.

In a series of quick movements, Lyman is off his horse, wrapping his arms around the steer's neck, careful to keep his head away from the flailing taped horns. He plants his feet in front of the steer, stopping it cold, and twists its head up and toward him, using his 6-foot-4-inch frame to drag the animal to the ground. This particular steer is not cooperating. Lyman struggles to bring it down. His time, 10.5 seconds.

He knows it's not fast enough to be in the money. He retrieves his hat and walks slowly toward the contestants' area. If you look closely, you can detect a slight limp.

Momma, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys. This might be one of the few times when Lyman, a professional steer wrestler, wishes his mother had followed Willie Nelson's advice. Lyman is in Houston to compete with more than 500 other cowboys for $700,000 in prize money at the Houston Rodeo and Stock Show. But he has other important business: He is leading a surprisingly strong attempt to unionize the nation's approximately 8,000 professional rodeo cowboys.

Lyman has a vague notion of who Samuel Gompers was. "Didn't he start the unions?" he asks. But even if he is not familiar with the antique personalities of labor history, Lyman might make history of his own if he succeeds in corralling America's quintessential individualists into a contestants' union. Such a union would give a big boost to a labor movement that is reaching out to new groups of American workers. "We are professional athletes," Lyman says. "We need to take care of ourselves and be regarded as professionals."

Lyman's home is in Lolo, Mont., but this week he will travel from Houston to rodeos in San Angelo, Texas, and Phoenix. In reality, home is where his pickup truck and camper are. And that may be in one of the 80 to 100 cities he will visit this year. At all of these rodeos, he needs to twist a steer to the ground faster than the dozens of cowboys he competes against.

Jimmy Powers, 53, Lyman's friend and road mate, who lives in Sonora, Texas, rides the hazing horse, which controls the steer, for Lyman, and provides them for other cowboys. Powers and Lyman are the unpaid organizers for the as-yet-unnamed cowboy union. They started the organizing drive last year after unsuccessful attempts to make headway through the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Assn. (PRCA), which oversees pro rodeo. They have already signed up more than 3,000 members and hope to forge bonds of solidarity among cowboys who shun organizational life and compete against each other for prize money and celebrity.

Powers, like most cowboys, is not a militant, or even a loud man. But he is outspoken in his defense of the contestants.

"The rodeo is the contestants," he said, sitting atop his favorite steer-wrestling horse Yellow Dog. "And we are not getting our fair share. We want prize money to go up, we want better health insurance, we want a retirement plan and we want more control over rule changes." He compares the professional cowboy to baseball players before free agency, caught in a system that does not provide job security, a living wage or basic benefits.

The rodeo association has an 11-member board that sets the rules for the circuit. It also determines what percentage of the money generated at the gate goes toward prize money and negotiates advertising agreements with corporate sponsors. The cowboys have four seats on the board, which has led to a growing sense of powerlessness. Two board seats go to the stock providers, two members represent the local committees, there are two independent directors, and one seat is for the specialty acts, the clowns and other entertainers.

The cowboys have moved from trying to influence the board internally to outside pressure tactics. Their attitude is that they gamble with their bodies every time they show up for work, and the economic odds are stacked against them. A long rodeo career is 10 years, and there is a universal expectation that at some point they may be seriously injured. They are not covered by workers' compensation laws.

"We bring the people here every night," says steer wrestler Doug Houston. He made $40,000 last year in prize money, but spent $30,000 on travel and expense. "After 14 years you begin to think, I've had five operations on my knees and I've got some stitches and a couple of belt buckles to show for it."

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