valets protest 4-24-21

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

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A Louisville labor group filed an eleventh-hour lawsuit Friday seeking an immediate restraining order meant to ensure valets at Churchill Downs are able to picket outside of the Central Avenue racetrack during Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

Yet the valets, a group of 13 seasonal workers who saddle and unsaddle racehorses, would not commit Friday afternoon to sit out the Derby.

"They're still working right now," David O'Brien Suetholz, the attorney for the valets' union, SEIU Local 541, said in a text message Friday when asked if they planned to strike on Saturday.

Churchill Downs said earlier Friday that it wouldn't agree to the valets' demand to resolve the dispute ahead of the Derby, but would meet with their union next week. The company called the union's threat to disrupt the Derby a "spectacle."

"Churchill Downs’ offer to meet next week is unacceptable and insulting, especially when they canceled our last meeting abruptly and refused to acknowledge our offer to finalize a deal," Ron Shelton, a longtime valet, said in a statement issued through a PR firm. "The biggest day of the year is tomorrow, and Churchill Downs is suggesting we work under a substandard contract so they can drive up their profits."

The PR agency did not reply when asked if the valets plan to strike.

The Friday lawsuit by the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, an umbrella group for unions, claims the union members would not have access to public sidewalks around the iconic racetrack because of Derby Day permits. 

"The Labor Council has recently learned that (Churchill Downs) has secured permits on or around all public sidewalks and easements where picketing activity would likely occur in order to deprive the Labor Council of its constitutional and statutory right to engage in lawful and peaceful picketing activity," according to the lawsuit, which was handled by Suetholz's firm.

The lawsuit seeks a Jefferson Circuit Court order instructing Churchill Downs "to permit individuals who wish to engage in picketing activity the ability to engage in such activity on or around public sidewalks and easements around its property located at 700 Central Avenue."

Churchill Downs did not provide an immediate response to the lawsuit.

Asked whether the valets' decision to strike hinges on getting a restraining order, Suetholz said: "Of course not. Their decision to exercise their right to strike is not dependent on a convenient sidewalk."

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