Churchill Downs Valet Union Gets OK to Strike, Kentucky Derby Walkout Possible

Posted on: April 29, 2021, 10:17h. 

Last updated on: April 30, 2021, 11:07h.

The valets at Churchill Downs have received a strike authorization from the union representing them. That means the workers who help prepare horses and jockeys for races may walk out before Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

Churchill Downs valets
Members of SEIU Local 541 and their supporters stand outside Churchill Downs on Saturday to call for the company to approve a new labor contract for valets represented by the union. (Image: Kay Tillow/Facebook)

On Wednesday night, the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council (GLCLC) held an emergency meeting to discuss how the 50,000 union workers within the council could offer their support to the members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 541.

Earlier that day, the union’s national leadership gave its approval, meaning the 2 million SEIU members would support their colleagues if they decide to walk out.

There are plans for a possible leafletting session on Friday to detail a potential strike Saturday.

The Run for the Roses is Kentucky’s signature sporting event,” said GLCLC President Todd Dunn in a statement. “It is our face to the entire world. From the valets to the pari-mutuel clerks to the folks who put together the garland of roses, the Kentucky Derby is Union made. All of these workers are vital. With Derby just hours away, the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council is prepared to stand with these workers in any action. An injury to one is an injury to all.”

The valets, pronounced with a hard ‘t,’ have worked without a contract since their deal with Churchill Downs expired last October. The union also represents the workers at Churchill-owned Turfway Park. They worked over the winter at the Florence, Ky., track without a contract after that one expired last April.

Last week, the Louisville-based company gave the union its final offer, which members turned down.

Valets Want Raises, Staffing Guarantees

Currently, the valets earned $109 a day at Churchill and $16.77 an hour at Turfway. The union wants to bump that to $120 a day at both tracks for the first year of a three-year deal, with $5-a-day raises in later years.

Churchill Downs wants to keep the same rate at its namesake track for the first year. It also proposed to raise the Turfway hourly wage to $17.02. There would be raises at both tracks over the final two years, allowing valets to earn $120 daily at Churchill and $17.52 an hour at Turfway.

SEIU Local 541 also wants increases to the pension fund. Contributions to the workers’ pension at Turfway last increased in 1999. Churchill Downs, which acquired Turfway two years ago, did not offer an increase at either track.

The union also wants guaranteed numbers for each workday. In a statement, Churchill Downs Inc. said staffing requirements hinge on the number of horses entered in races. However, the track’s parent company added that it does not intend to schedule fewer valets on racing days.

The valets work about 70 days a year at Churchill Downs and 50 at Turfway each year.

Churchill Calls Union Claims Inaccurate

A track spokesperson told Thursday Churchill Downs does have a plan in place in case the valets strike during the Derby.

In a statement issued Thursday, Churchill Downs Inc. said several of the union’s claims were not true. The company claims it’s still willing to negotiate on the contract for Turfway, since that track won’t resume racing again until December.

Churchill Downs also said its proposed raises would make valets pay higher than any other track in the area with comparable racing dates.

In addition, officials said the valets’ salary does not include money they receive from jockeys for the additional work riders hire them to perform. That money is based on the share of purses jockeys receive. Churchill Downs noted that it increased purses by $3.1 million for this year’s spring meet.

“While it is not unusual for the Kentucky Derby to be used as a platform for awareness, we regret that in this situation, there are factual inaccuracies reported by those attempting to leverage the Derby that affect our valued team members and potentially the critical work they do at Churchill Downs Racetrack,” the statement said.