Cooks, Servers and Dishwashers Almost Shut Down a Democratic Debate, Showing That Unions Have Political Clout

Ruben J. Garcia

Organized labor’s clout in the Democratic Party is growing. For evidence, look no further than the small California food services union that nearly managed to shut down a presidential debate.

Unite Here Local 11, which represents 150 cooks, dishwashers, cashiers and servers, had planned to picket the Dec. 19 debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where they work for Sodexo, a food contractor. The dispute involved their struggle to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement on better terms.

All seven candidates invited to participate, starting with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, said they would refuse to cross a picket line to take the stage.

After the candidates pulled out and Democratic National Committee Chairman and former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez got involved, the national spotlight helped the groups quickly secure a deal that allowed the event to take place. The tentative agreement included a three-year contract, a 25% increase in compensation and a 50% drop in health care costs for the workers, many of whom make at or slightly above the minimum wage.

That the labor movement is a key constituency for the Democratic Party is hardly new. But I believe, in part based on my research on unions in Nevada, there are some differences that may make labor even more important as we head into 2020.

The first difference is the electoral map.

Today, many of the places where labor is strongest are key swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada, with union membership near or above 10%. In states like these where the margin of victory is expected to be very tight, union members will be critical for the Democratic nominee.

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