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Potential work stoppage threatens Saturday’s Kentucky derby

A major labor dispute is brewing at the site of the Kentucky Derby, the crown jewel of horse racing which will take place for the 147th time on Saturday afternoon.

A group of unionized workers at Churchill Downs, the Louisville racetrack in Ky., Which hosts the event, said the company that owns the track and others across the country have refused to respond to their demands modest increases in pension benefits. Churchill Downs’ team of 13 valets – the workers who prepare the horses and jockeys for every race – have been working without a contract since last fall and have yet to strike a new deal with the billion-dollar company. dollars owner of the racetrack.

For now, workers are hopeful that they can avoid a work stoppage at the biggest and most watched event in horse racing.

“The S word is the last thing I want,” Churchill Downs valet Ron Shelton told HuffPost on Thursday. “Just pick up the phone and give us a call. We are ready to step in, negotiate and cross the table if they are ready to do the same. And I think we can fix this problem.

But so far Churchill Downs Inc. has refused to do so, the union says. And with Derby Day just two days away, the Louisville labor movement is bracing for the possibility of a work stoppage, protests, or any other course of action the valets may choose to pursue.

The International Union of Service Employees on Wednesday cleared a potential strike at the racetrack, and Local 541 of SEIU, the racetrack workers union that includes valets, is considering what next steps it wants to take. The Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, a coalition of 50 unions representing about 50,000 city workers, also met on Wednesday and decided it would support a strike if the dispute reached this stage.

“Louisville is a union town and the Kentucky Derby is the product of the union,” said Tim Morris, executive director of the labor council. Morris noted that the parimutual clerks at Churchill Downs – the people who take bets on every race – are also organized, as are the workers who make the wreath of roses that goes to the Derby winner every year. “So when one of our members is attacked, we want to support it as we can,” he said.

The jacks are an integral but above all invisible part of every race. A largely seasonal workforce, they often move from track to track as the racing season unfolds.

“Everyone knows about Churchill Downs, but not everyone knows what we’re doing to facilitate this,” said Shelton, who has worked at Churchill Downs for 37 years. “It involves a lot more than what people think. You got to follow through, and you got to do it right, and trust God that you can minimize any mistakes because you don’t have time to correct them.

Michael Reaves via Getty Images

The valets are responsible for saddling the horses, preparing the jockey bristles and respecting the weight limits before each race. “It involves a lot more than what people think,” Ron Shelton, a veteran valet, told HuffPost this week, amid a labor dispute with Churchill Downs over the amount of valet pay.

A work stoppage, if so, would not derby the Derby itself. But it could cause serious headaches for riders, coaches and race officials, as jacks perform essential pre-race tasks, including saddling and numbering horses, preparing jockey bristles, and setting up jockey bristles. compliance with weight limits and other rules.

In the event of a strike, “either the Churchill Downs leaders are going to have to strip and get dirty or they are going to try to call scabs,” said Pamela Newport, lawyer for the valets’ union. “No one they hire will be as highly skilled in this job as these guys.”

Jacks at Churchill Downs are currently paid a daily rate of $ 109, which works out to about $ 16 an hour, according to union lawyers. The union called for wage increases to $ 130 a day by the end of the three-year contract, as well as a slight increase in the amount the company contributes to valet pensions. Churchill responded with a proposal to increase the daily rate to $ 120 in the third year, but did not include any salary increases during the first year of the contract and no adjustment to pension contributions, according to union lawyers.

The union, Shelton said, has “come down a lot” from its initial demand, but Churchill Downs “hasn’t budged”.

Churchill Downs Inc. paid CEO William Carstanjen over $ 10.5 million in 2019, a figure equivalent to about 450 times the median salary of the company’s employees, according to the AFL-CIO.

The valets “just want a fucking slice of the pie,” Shelton said. “We are not asking for anything extraordinary or an inordinate amount.”

The valets at Turfway Park, another Kentucky racetrack owned by Churchill Downs Inc., are also looking for the same pay increases and want to move from an hourly pay schedule to a daily pay schedule that matches that of Churchill’s valets. Turfway valets have been working without a contract since April 2020.

The two groups hope to make the track contracts more standard, so valets have a better idea of ​​the wages and benefits they will receive at the two Churchill-owned properties, Newport said. The Turfway valets, meanwhile, have not seen an increase in pension contributions since 1999.

In total, the union estimates that the pension increases and increases it has requested would cost Churchill Downs Inc., a company that has won over $ 1 billion in revenue last year, approximately $ 27,000 per year.

Churchill Downs Inc.’s revenue was hit in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the company reported a net loss of nearly $ 82 million. But he’s already shown signs of a strong rebound: he reported $ 324.3 million in revenue in the first quarter of 2021, an increase of 28% over a year ago, and generated $ 36 million in profit. The company also said it will bring a $ 3.1 million in additional revenue from another facility he owns in Louisville, using slot machines and off-track betting.

Tonya Abeln, spokesperson for Churchill Downs Inc., disputed the workers’ claims in a statement, saying the $ 27,000 figure was incorrect, although she did not provide Churchill’s own cost estimate. She also said the company’s position is that negotiations at Churchill and Turfway should be separated and that they are committed to reaching a deal at Turfway between this weekend’s Derby and the start of the season. of Turfway Race in December.

She said the company’s “latest and best offer” to the Churchill Downs union included a 6% pay rise for 2022, a 4% hike for 2023 and special pay for events like the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks – the major race for fillies. which takes place on the Friday before Derby Day each year.

“The salaries offered by Churchill Downs are higher than any salary offered by any other track in the area, with comparable race dates,” said Abeln.

The union also wants Churchill to guarantee a minimum number of valets, in order to avoid job cuts or reduced hours. Abeln said that while the company has no plans to change its historical minimums, it has objected to guarantees because the number of valets is tied to the number of horses entering each race.

Churchill’s 13-member valet team works 70 days a year, before moving on to other trails, Shelton said. They also earn income from commission agreements with jockeys, who pay a share of the income based on the work the valets do to prepare the silks and provide other services during race days.

But the total number of races and race days has declined in Kentucky and across the country from the peak of the sport. Companies like Churchill have replaced some lost income with other forms of betting, but the decrease in race days has made it harder for jacks like Shelton to make ends meet, which is why they don’t want to further delay the annual increases for another year. .

The workers have garnered support from key Kentucky lawmakers, including members of the state legislature and Charles Booker, a Democrat considering a U.S. Senate next year. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (R) also appeared to offer his support to the workers in a tweet this week. Crystal Staley, a spokesperson for Beshear, said he had offered the services of his Labor Cabinet secretary to help mediate the conflict.

Churchill’s position in the negotiations, Shelton said, has made him feel underappreciated by business executives who fail to realize how important jacks are to their business and have damaged his love for a sport. in which he has been involved for over 40 years.

“I wish some people from Churchill Downs would come here and watch [what we do]Shelton said. “Nothing against them, but they ignored our work and our homework and everything. How could you have a foundation to negotiate with someone, tell them what they’re worth and what they’re not, when you don’t even know what they’re doing?


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