Despite contract dispute, service workers decided against a planned strike at the Kentucky Derby
Days before the Kentucky Derby, a group of organized workers at Churchill Downs threatened a strike that could have potentially derailed the 2021 race. Although the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) authorized the strike, and the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council indicated its support as well, the SEIU Local 541 racetrack employees union decided against a Derby Day strike and performed their jobs, helping prepare the horses and jockeys for the landmark race.
At issue is a contract dispute surrounding the wages of 13 valets based at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky and nine additional valets at Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky. Turfway Park is also owned by Churchill Downs Inc.
“The labor contracts for each set of valets expired last year, and the union would like to negotiate a new deal that standardizes wages and working conditions across the tracks,” said union attorney David Suetholz of BS&J. “Valets currently receive a daily rate of $109, or $16 per hour, and they initially asked for an increased wage of $130 per day, about $20 an hour, by the end of a proposed three-year contract, along with pension contributions of less than $1,000 per year. Churchill Downs presented a counterproposal of $120 per day by the third year, but did not include a pay increase during the first year or any adjustment to pension contributions.”
Local 541 asserts that, although they’ve reduced their request, the company currently refuses to meet their demands.
“The raises and pension increases requested by the union would only cost Churchill Downs approximately $27,000 per year, and yet they can’t agree to even that amount,” Suetholz said. “This is a company that earned more than $1 billion in revenue last year and paid their CEO more than $10.5 million in 2019.”
The possibility of a Derby Day strike drew support for the union from across the nation. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who held a political rally in Louisville the same weekend as the Derby, tweeted the day before the race: “At the same time its CEO is compensated to the tune of $10.5 million a year, Churchill Downs is refusing modest pay increases for their workers. Absurd. I am proud to stand with the workers of SEIU Local 541 on strike for better pay and better working conditions.”