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SEIU authorizes potential Derby valet strike at Churchill Downs

Published: Apr. 28, 2021 at 6:33 PM EDT
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With days away until the 147th Kentucky Derby takes place at Churchill Downs, several of the...
With days away until the 147th Kentucky Derby takes place at Churchill Downs, several of the track’s essential workers took to the streets demanding fair wages.(WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - With the Kentucky Derby just three days away, one key group of backside workers has been authorized to strike by its parent union.

“There is no Derby without the valets,” David Suetholz, the attorney representing the union, said, during a protest outside the racetrack this weekend. “The valets are an absolutely essential part of horse racing. These are the men that actually saddle the horses and make sure that the weights are proper on the saddles.”

The SEIU local 541 typically consists of 13 valets, and almost doubled that for Derby, at both Turfway Park and Churchill Downs.

Suetholz said contract negotiations were canceled by Churchill last week, leaving racing valets with what the group calls substandard wages and pension benefits; he stated the average Churchill Downs employee makes $26,000.

The valets are asking for a raise from $16 an hour to $20, with Suetholz adding some workers haven’t gotten an increase in more than 20 years. The union lawyer said that would amount to a yearly cost of $27,000 for Churchill Downs.

The Service Employees International Union gave the local chapter the green light to strike Wednesday if they decide to.

“All options are on the table,” Suetholz said, Saturday. “We’ve been very careful not to use the ‘S’ word. These are allies right here. This is the local labor community and allies that have come out to support these people.”

The Greater Louisville Central Labor Council is expected to meet Wednesday to discuss how to support Local 541.

Suetholz said there is a possibility people may experience Derby disruptions if a deal is not reached.

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