labor dispute valets sign

Supporters of the Churchill Downs valets and SEIU Local 541 protested on Saturday, April 24, 2021 at the racetrack.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Churchill Downs Inc. says it’s willing to meet next week with the Louisville union representing the workers who saddle racehorses, but the company said it is unable to meet the union’s demand to resolve the labor dispute ahead of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

The 13 seasonal workers, called valets, and their union, SEIU Local 541, must now decide whether to follow through on threats of a Derby Day strike, which could involve a few hundred other unionized workers at the racetrack.

The company on Friday accused the union of “create(ing) a spectacle” by threatening to disrupt the world’s most famous horse race.   

“Any suggestion that we are unwilling to negotiate is untrue,” Churchill Downs spokeswoman Tonya Abeln told WDRB on Friday. “We are simply unable to bring this to an agreeable solution before their demand of tomorrow morning.”

David O’Brien Suetholz, an attorney representing SEIU Local 541, said workers still hope for a quick agreement.

“We’re available all day today. The difference that separates us could be resolved in an hour and we have flexibility and a spirit of openness on our side,” Suetholz said.

While affecting less than two-dozen workers, the labor dispute has garnered national attention and threatens to cast a shadow over the Derby.  

Members of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, an umbrella group of unions, are planning to pass out leaflets about the valets’ dispute at the Central Avenue racetrack ahead of the Kentucky Oaks today.

Spokespeople for Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat who is closely aligned with labor unions, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Kentucky's governor traditionally presents the trophy to the Kentucky Derby winner.

As of Friday, the valets had not called a strike.

If they do strike on Derby Day, the action could include hundreds of pari-mutuel tellers -- the people who take bets at the track -- who are also part of SEIU Local 541, as well as other unionized workers.

“A disruption to the Kentucky Derby would do nothing to benefit the valets who have told us they want to work under the terms we proposed this weekend,” Churchill Downs’ Abeln said in an email. “The only thing threatening the possibility of that is the misrepresentation of the Union and their attempts to create a spectacle for purposes that serve their own interests and not that of the valets.”

At issue are the wages of 13 valets – who ensure saddles are properly weighted and placed upon the racehorses – based at Churchill Downs and nine at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, which Churchill Downs bought last year.

The labor contracts for each set of a valets expired last year and the union would like to negotiate a new deal that standardizes wages and working conditions across the tracks, while Churchill Downs prefers to negotiate them separately, Suetholz told WDRB last week.

Suetholz has said the valets would like to earn about $20 per hour on average, up from about $16 currently.

He has said it would take only an additional $27,000 annually from Churchill Downs to resolve the dispute for both sets of valets, but the company called that claim inaccurate.

Churchill Downs did not provide specific wage figures, but said it has offered the Louisville valets a nearly 6% pay increase in 2022 and a more-than 4% increase in 2023, as well as “special pay for Oaks/ Derby and holidays, including the Oaks/Derby bonus which would increase throughout our proposed agreement.”

The valets are also paid by jockeys typically via a percentage of the jockeys’ share of race purses, Churchill Downs said, adding that it has worked to increase purses through slots-like historical horse racing, generating more money for the valets.

The company said it can’t agree to a request to guarantee a minimum number of working valets, as “that number is tied directly to the average number of horses entered into its races.

“Churchill Downs does not control the number of entries and must have the ability to adjust scheduling practices, if an unanticipated change in the entries occurs.”

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