The Culinary Workers Union, a powerful force in Nevada politics, announced Thursday it would not be endorsing a candidate in the state’s primary contest. A dispute that erupted this week between the organization and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign threatens to upend predictions for the Democratic caucuses on Feb. 22.
“We’re going to endorse our goals, that’s what we’re doing,” Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said. “We’re not going to endorse a political candidate. We respect every single political candidate right now, they’re great people.”
Politico reported that former Vice President Joe Biden had been in the running for the nod but that his poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire raised concerns. Argüello-Kline dodged repeated inquiries from reporters about whether the membership voted on whether to endorse.
As Sanders was locking in his victory in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night, the Nevada Independent published a story about the contents of a flier being sent by email and text to the 60,000 members of Unite Here, Local 226, which represents food service, housekeeping and other workers in the hotel industry. The flier outlined the policy positions of the Democratic presidential contenders and stated that Sanders would “end Culinary Healthcare.” Sanders’s Medicare for All single-payer bill would eliminate all private insurance, with a provision for compensating labor union members who traded concessions on wages or other benefits in exchange for health care in previous contracts.
Sarah Michelsen, the Bernie 2020 Nevada state director, responded with a statement: “Bernie has stood with workers his entire career, fighting on picket lines against pension cuts and corporate greed. Medicare for All will be no different; the program is crafted with the working class and particularly union members in mind. Bernie has been clear that under Medicare for All, we will guarantee that coverage is as comprehensive or more so than the health care benefits union workers currently receive, and union health clinics, including the Culinary’s health clinic, will remain open to serve their members. With health care as a human right, unions will have more leverage to negotiate better wages and benefits.”
Things escalated on Wednesday, when the union issued a statement condemning attacks from Sanders supporters over the language used in the flier.
“It’s disappointing that Senator Sanders’s supporters have viciously attacked the Culinary Union and working families in Nevada simply because our union has provided facts on what certain healthcare proposals might do to take away the system of care we have built over 8 decades,” said Argüello-Kline in a statement.
Sanders’s rivals for the nomination jumped to support the union.
“No one should attack @Culinary226 and its members for fighting hard for themselves and their families. Like them, I want to see every American get high-quality and affordable health care — and I’m committed to working with them to achieve that goal,” wrote Sen. Elizabeth Warren, retweeting the union’s statement.
“I stand with @Culinary226 and let's be clear: attacks on the union are unacceptable. I come from a family of proud union members and I know when unions are strong, America is strong,” wrote Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“I stand with @Culinary226 and their fight for better wages, world class health care, and the American dream for working and immigrant families. No one should ever attack them for fighting and delivering for their members,” wrote former Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Sanders responded on Wednesday night during an interview on MSNBC.
“My response is I have a lot more union supporters than Pete Buttigieg has or ever will have,” said Sanders. “Many, many unions throughout this country, including some in Unite Here, and the culinary union is part of Unite Here, absolutely understand that we’ve got to move to Medicare for All, and the reason is if you talk to union negotiators they will tell you they spend half of their time arguing against cutbacks for the health care they have.”
The Sanders campaign announced changes to its Medicare for All plan in August that would allow for unions, under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board, “to negotiate for and provide wrap-around services and other coverage not duplicative of the benefits established” by a single-payer health care plan. Sanders supporters began referencing a 2016 tweet that showed him visiting the union’s picket line.
On Thursday, a petition began circulating among rank-and-file members of the culinary union pledging their support for Sanders and Medicare for All. While many of the bigger national unions have yet to officially endorse in the primary race, Sanders has gained the most support from organized labor so far. Nationally, he's been endorsed by American Postal Workers Union (about 200,000 members); National Nurses United (150,000); the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (35,000); and the National Union of Healthcare Workers (15,000). He’s also earned the support of a number of teachers’ unions, including the largest in Nevada.
The culinary union was an important part of former Sen. Harry Reid’s formidable political machine in Nevada. Although the union didn’t make an official endorsement in the 2016 caucuses, Reid pushed it to side with Hillary Clinton at the last minute, helping her scratch out a 5-point win over Sanders after her blowout loss in New Hampshire.
The rift with the leadership of the culinary union could hurt Sanders’s chances in Nevada, where he had been expected to do well in light of his campaign’s extensive outreach to Latinx voters. With the assistance of high-profile supporters like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and rapper Cardi B, Sanders has consistently led in polling among Latinx voters; according to one analysis, he raised $8.3 million from that demographic in 2019, 36 percent of the total share donated and more than three times the amount of any other Democratic candidate.
There has not been public polling of Nevada since early January.
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