valets fair contract sign 4-24-21

Supporters of the Churchill Downs valets protested outside the racetrack on April 24, 2021.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A labor dispute won't beset the 147th Kentucky Derby after all.

Churchill Downs' valets, the 13 seasonal workers who saddle and unsaddle the thoroughbreds, on Saturday morning backed off a threat to strike during the world's most famous horse race.

The valets had said they were considering a picket after Churchill Downs refused to work out a new contract by their deadline of Saturday morning.

"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," said the valets' union, SEIU Local 541, in a statement Saturday morning. "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.”

The union had said Friday evening that about 200 parimutuel clerks, who staff the betting windows at the track and are also part of SEIU Local 541, would honor the valets' picket line and refuse to work the Derby if the valets decided to strike.

And an umbrella group for organized labor in Louisville filed an 11th-hour lawsuit on Friday claiming that Churchill Downs' permits restricted the valets' access to public sidewalks outside the racetrack to picket on Derby Day should they call a strike. 

The prospect of a strike during the Run for the Roses garnered national attention. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is scheduled to hold a political rally Sunday in Louisville with potential Democratic Senate candidate Charles Booker, tweeted support for the valets on Friday.

Churchill Downs said Friday that it is willing to meet with the union about the valets' contract next week, but that it wasn't possible to resolve the dispute before Derby.

"Any suggestion that we are unwilling to negotiate is untrue," corporate spokeswoman Tonya Abeln said.

The valets, whose contract expired last year, are seeking wages that equate to about $20 per hour, up from about $16 currently, and a more generous contribution to their pension plan, according to David O'Brien Suetholz, the attorney handling negotiations for SEIU Local 541.

They also want to negotiate in tandem with the valets at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., which Churchill Downs acquired last year, and to standardize compensation across the two groups and their 22 total workers. Churchill Downs wants to keep them separate.

Churchill Downs said Friday that the valets are insisting on some provisions that the company will not agree to, such as guaranteeing a minimum number of workers despite the number of horses in a given field. 

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2021 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.