Churchill Downs Valets Opt Against Strike on Kentucky Derby Day

Posted on: April 30, 2021, 07:20h. 

Last updated on: May 1, 2021, 05:50h.

UPDATE (12:30 am ET 5/1) – In an emailed statement early Saturday morning, SEIU Local 541 announced the valets it represents would go to work at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, ending any possibility of a strike for now.

With the world’s eyes on the Kentucky Derby, we want to thank everyone for their support in the fight for livable wages, dignity, and respect for the valets at Churchill Downs,” the union’s statement read. “The valets have made the incredibly tough and selfless decision to put this event and the entire community above themselves, and the leadership of SEIU Local 541 respects that decision. The valets will continue to work the Kentucky Derby with the same commitment, passion, and dedication that they always have, and this union will continue to support them in their pursuit of a fair and just contract.”

PREVIOUSLY REPORTED (10:20 pm ET 4/30) — If the valets at Churchill Downs decide to strike on Saturday, they won’t be alone. On Friday night, the eve of the Kentucky Derby, the track’s pari-mutuel clerks said they would not cross their union colleagues’ picket line.

Churchill Downs strike
Supporters of valets working at Churchill Downs stood on the sidewalk in front of the Louisville track Friday afternoon handing out leaflets to patrons entering the track. The paper informed the public that valets, who have not had a contract with the track since October, may strike on Saturday. (Image: Greater Louisville Central Labor Council/Facebook)

With the clerks honoring a possible Derby Day strike, it means the Louisville track could be without 200 clerks to take wagers on its biggest day of the year.

“The pari-mutuel clerks stand in full solidarity with valets who have been patiently waiting for a fair contract since last fall,” said Don Vest, executive board president for Service Employees International Union Local 541. The local represents about two dozen valets who work at the track.

SEIU officials gave the local permission to strike earlier this week.

The valets have been working without a contract since their agreement with the track expired last October. The same union represents the valets at Churchill-owned Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. That contract expired a year ago, just months after Churchill took over ownership from JACK Entertainment.

Valets prepare jockeys and horses for races and also take care of saddles and jockey equipment. As racing is seasonal by location, many of them work several different tracks throughout the year.

As they remained on the job Friday, members of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council stood outside the track and handed out leaflets to patrons entering the track. The leaflets advised fans what might happen if a strike takes place.

Churchill Downs Asks to Meet Next Week

Churchill Downs offered the valets, pronounced with a hard “t,” what was considered a best-and-final contract offer last week. Officials from the track did not meet with union representatives on Friday. However, track officials reportedly told the union they would be willing to continue discussions next week.

Union members rejected that overture.

Churchill Downs’ offer to meet next week without agreeing to use a mediator, and with no assurances that they will actually move on any of their proposals, is unacceptable and insulting, especially when they canceled our last meeting abruptly and refused to acknowledge our offer to finalize a deal,” SEIU Local 541 member Ronnie Shelton said in a statement.

Track representatives declined to comment on the pari-mutuel clerks’ decision on Friday night.

Sides Disagree on Wages, Pension, Staffing

There are several issues that need to be resolved between the valets and Churchill Downs.

First is pay. The valets want the same rate at both Churchill Downs and Turfway. They want a three-year deal starting at $120 per day. Currently, they make $109 daily at Churchill and $16.77 an hour at Turfway. The company has offered wages at Churchill to remain the same for the first year and for 25-cent hourly raises at Turfway.

The valets also want Churchill to increase contributions to the workers’ pension fund. At Turfway, valets get $5 a day toward their retirement benefit, a contribution that has not changed in 22 years. Track officials have not proposed any change in retirement, but they have offered an increase in vacation accrual.

In addition, valets want Churchill to guarantee staffing at certain levels, including 13 for most racing days and 20 for the Breeders’ Cup.

Churchill Downs has said they have no intention of reducing staffing for valets. However, they said that is contingent on the number of horses that run at the track.

The company also noted in a statement earlier this week that the pay it offered would have made the valets the best-paid among tracks with similar racing schedules in the region. It also has offered special pay rates for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby.

They also say that valets have opportunities to get paid by jockeys for additional work, and that income will grow thanks to the increases in purses for the spring meet.

Company officials have also said union comments about the track generating revenues of more than 41 billion last year were misleading, because Churchill Downs Inc. reported a net loss of almost $82 million last year.

Potential Impact on Derby Betting

While company officials would not comment, the disruption caused lack of pari-mutuel clerks to take wagers, which could curtail on-track betting for the Kentucky Derby, easily the biggest day of the year for Churchill Downs.

However, on-track wagering only represents a fraction of the total handle. In 2019, when a record $250.9 million was wagered on the Derby Day card, just $21.3 million was bet at the track.

Churchill Downs also features banks of ATM-like automated machines to take wagers, and the track could encourage fans to bet on races using the TwinSpires advanced-deposit wagering (ADW) online platform. However, ADW wagers would affect how much money horsemen receive from the track. The horsemen receive a much larger share of the takeout from wagers made at the track.