Democrats woo labor in Las Vegas

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks to reporters after his remarks to AFSCME members in Las Vegas Saturday. O'Rourke, who represented El Paso in Congress, was clearly distraught at the news of the mass shooting in that city.

During a packed forum put on by the American Federation of State, Municipal, City Employees in Las Vegas Saturday, 19 Democratic presidential candidates promised support for collective bargaining while doubling down on their positions on immigration and health care. 

Earlier in the week, the candidates sparred over health care at the two-night, CNN presidential debate. Most candidates took time to revisit the issue Saturday. Vice President Joe Biden stressed the importance of building upon the Affordable Care Act. “I’m against any Democrat who wants to get rid of Obamacare,” he said. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders made their case for Medicare For All. Warren, who was asked if the proposal would hurt union workers who like their current plans, said unions would be at the table for the discussion about how it would be implemented. “The first part of the transition, as I see, it is the unions are at the table,” she said. “Nobody does anything without working people well represented.”

AFSCME president Lee Saunders said this is one of several events that will assist the organization and its 1.4 million members decide who it will endorse. “In the past, AFSCME has kind of jumped out there pretty quickly and endorsed a candidate,” he said. “We’re going to slow it down this time. We’ve got a lot of friends in the race. We want to hear what they have to say. We want to hear them speak about the importance of unions and how they want to resolve the problems with working families.”

Among the many union workers who attended the event trying to learn about how candidates plan to take on wage issues, strengthen unions and improve the quality of life for Americans was 55-year-old Alonzo Thornton, a registered psychiatric nurse from Las Vegas.

He, for one, was glad the candidates continued their health care discussions from the debate since he wanted more information on how each proposal worked. Though some are still vague, he said he learned more at the event.

“I’m trying to get a handle on the candidates, and I kind of did,” he said. “They answered a lot of questions I had, especially about health care and student debt. I’m a big policy guy. I want to hear specifics.”

During 15 to 20 minute questions and answer sessions, candidates shared their visions for American and tackled questions on the economy, wages and immigration. 

Castro reiterated the importance of decriminalizing border crossings, a position Biden has opposed.

However, there were overlapping issues candidates focused on. All hammered the Trump administration, pointing to corruption and the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017.

“The big question in 2020 is who government works for,” Warren said. “You’ve been out here day after day after day trying to make it work but the game is rigged. And it is rigged to help the wealthy and the well connected.”

Though Nevada recently passed, and Gov. Steve Sisolak signed, legislation to expand worker’s collective bargaining rights — a move most candidates praised on stage — the first question everyone received was about a need to enact similar legislation on a national level. Everybody was for it. 

“There should be a federal law because we’ve seen it under attack in so many states,” said Sen. Kamala Harris. “In the history of American, states have put in place laws that have violated the civil rights, human rights and the equal rights of people. We need and have to have a federal government who understand there are certain values and principles that must be defended even when the states fail to do so. This is one of those issues.”

Being a union forum, each candidate used their time to stress the importance of unions and talk about expanding worker protections. 

“So many things we can do in the country at a federal level to rebalance the scales and give power back to working people,” New York City Bill de Blasio said. “Let’s ban state right-to-work laws because they should be made illegal.”

Some of the candidates, such as Warren, Harris and Sen. Bernie Sanders, specifically mentioned they would consider union leaders for cabinet positions, particularly secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor. 

A few, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and de Blasio applauded AFSCME’s recent fight in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which ruled that unions can’t collect fees from non-union members — though candidates mentioned the decision, they didn’t offer anything further. 

All had ideas about how to improve the lives of everyday Americans working, but Warren, Sanders and Sen. Cory Booker specifically mentioned ways to decrease the wealth gap between black and white Americans. 

Warren noted her plan to forgive 95 percent of student debt would shrink the wealth gap. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he would address systemic racism such as making it easier for entrepreneurs to access capital when starting business to dealing with the impact of redlining Black communities. 

Others touched on other racial disparities in education, housing policies or the environment.

Inslee, who has made the climate crisis the center of his campaign, spoke on the need for policies that focus on environmental justice. “It is not right that Black Americans breathe 50 percent more pollution,” he said. 

Inslee also touted his plan to boost the economy by creating green union jobs. 

Following breaking news of an active shooter in El Paso, Tex. that left several dead, candidates began integrating gun violence and reforms into their messages that day. 

“I ask for everyone’s strength for El Paso right now and everyone’s resolve to make sure this doesn’t continue to happen,” said O’Rourke, who is from El Paso and was clearly distraught by the news.

Of the 24 candidates running for president, 19 took the stage at the Saturday event: Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Seth Moulton, Gov. Steve Bullock, Sen. Cory Booker, Vice President Joe Biden, author Marianne Williamson, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer,  Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Bill de Blaso, U.S. Sen Amy Kloubuchar, Rep. John Delaney, Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep Tulsi Gabbard, Rep Tim Ryan, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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