Track Workers Union Says Members May Strike On Derby Day

Apr 30, 2021

Credit J. Tyler Franklin

Key employees at the Churchill Downs racetrack may strike on Derby Day. Representatives for the track’s workers’ union said they haven’t been able to come to an agreement with Churchill Downs over pay and benefits for the company’s valets.

“And now we’re getting to the brink of a very scary decision: whether we strike an event that the world watches,” said attorney David Suetholtz, who represents the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 541. 

The union has about 400 members, and around 200 of them usually work the Derby, Suetholtz said.

According to Suetholtz, the union has been trying to negotiate its three-year contract since last July for the valets at Churchill Downs, and since last February for those at Turfway Park in Florence. Valets saddle and unsaddle the horses, and make sure each horse is carrying the same weight.

The union is asking for  pay and benefit increases, and for pay to be equalized at both tracks. Valets make $109 a day at Churchill Downs and $16.77 an hour at Turfway Park, according to Suetholtz. They also receive a $10.75 a day pension contribution at Churchill Downs and a $5.00 a day pension contribution at Turfway. 

Suetholtz said the union is seeking pay of about $20 an hour at both tracks, and for the company to increase the daily pension contribution to $11.50 at both tracks within three years.

Churchill Downs offered a less generous contract last Thursday, which the union rejected. The proposal had no pay increase in the first year, a 6% pay increase offered in 2022 and another 4% increase in 2023, according to the company. In an emailed statement, Churchill Downs spokesman Darren Rogers said the wages “do not include additional pay that valets may receive from jockeys.”  

Churchill Downs brought in more than $1 billion revenue in 2020. But, after expenses, it had a net income loss of $82 million. “The suggestion that [Churchill Downs] had profits in excess of $1 billion is incomplete, inaccurate and disingenuous,” the company’s statement reads.

Suetholtz said Churchill Downs is spending its money in the wrong places, pointing to the addition of hotels at Oak Grove and off-track betting facilities. 

“Anybody who’s paying attention to Churchill Downs knows that they’re on a building spree,” he said. “They are spending money like drunken sailors, but they don’t actually want to pay for the people that are actually making them money.”

The union claims the contract the valets are asking for would cost Churchill Downs an additional $27,000 a year.

Churchill Downs disputes that figure, saying it’s based on an inaccurate number of race days, but a representative declined to answer a follow-up question from WFPL News about how much the company believes the union’s request would cost. Rogers, the spokesperson, said in an email that Churchill Downs had “nothing further to add.”

While the dispute is over valet pay, a strike on Derby Day could shut down hundreds of betting windows, according to Suetholtz, since pari-mutuel tellers make up the vast majority of union members.