Three candidates, two unions, one gaffe

at culinary
Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden each addressed Culinary union members in Las Vegas this week. (Photos courtesy of Culinary)

If selfies are the heart of democracy, as presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren suggests, the senator is lagging behind Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, at least in the race for the digital keepsakes. The three candidates held separate town hall meetings this week with members of the Culinary Local 226 and its parent union in Las Vegas.

Biden, who failed to escape the hour-long event Wednesday without inserting his foot in his mouth, had by far the longest line of members waiting to say cheese.

He may also have the inside track to the Culinary’s coveted endorsement. U.S. Rep. Dina Titus is already in Biden’s corner, as is state senator Yvanna Cancela, the union’s former political director. U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, who has long ties to the union and was endorsed by Biden in his congressional race, seems likely to join them.

Biden has also enjoyed the fundraising prowess of the CEO of the Culinary’s biggest employer, MGM Resorts International’s Jim Murren.     

But union officials contend they haven’t even narrowed the field, let alone identified a candidate to support in the primary.

“We’ve had town halls with others,” said union spokeswoman Bethany Khan. “We had Kamala.”

With Sen. Kamala Harris out of the race and Mayor Pete Buttigieg failing to gain traction in Nevada, according to polls, Warren, Sanders and Biden may as well be the union’s short list of potential endorsements.  

That is, if the union endorses.  In the 2016 primary, UNITE HERE, the Culinary’s parent union, left the choice to locals. Culinary 226 chose not to endorse.  

“We will probably have an executive board meeting.  It would be a UNITE HERE endorsement,” reminds D. Taylor, president of the national union that represents workers in hotels, food service, airports, transportation and more. 

When that endorsement may come is a mystery. 

“I don’t know.  I really don’t,” Taylor says. “Last time we did an endorsement it was Obama and we did it the day after New Hampshire.”   

That did not turn out well — at least in the short run. Not only did Obama lose Nevada, but the Clintons sued to prevent Culinary workers from having easy access to precinct meetings in hotels.   

This year the caucus resembles a primary, complete with a secret ballot and early voting.  No one, including Culinary members, will have to declare their choice publicly, before neighbors, colleagues or supervisors.  

It’s unknown if members will adhere to the union’s endorsement. In 2008, despite the union’s endorsement of Obama, Clinton won seven of nine caucus locations on the Culinary’s home turf, the Las Vegas Strip. 

The Culinary’s heft as a political force is twofold: the union has more than 82,400 members and family who are registered to vote, according to a spokeswoman, and it can marshal its forces to canvass targeted precincts.  

UNITE HERE was the first national union to endorse Barack Obama in 2018. 

In 2016, 300 UNITE HERE and Culinary Union members took leave from their jobs and “knocked on over 350,000 doors, talked to over 75,000 voters, and delivered 54,000 early votes as political organizers,” according to the union.  

The union says it had “quality one-on-one conversations with approximately 80,000 voters across Nevada” in 2018.  

“No organization does a better job turning out marginal voters,” says UNLV political science professor David Damore.  

Warren, Sanders and Biden received enthusiastic welcomes from crowds estimated by the Culinary at 350 for each event.  But all three candidates carried their own baggage into the union hall.

Sanders and Warren want to replace the Culinary’s health plan, the envy of the industry, with an unknown —  Medicare for All.  

Warren tried to calm the almost palpable trepidation among members who fear losing their plans.

“What you’ve got is something I want to see replicated all across America,” Warren told union members, without going into specifics about how converting to single-payer would affect them.  “The part that changes is the money and where it comes from. We need to ask the very top, the one percent, the tax cheats to kick in a little more.”  

Sanders was more explicit, promising legislation to compel employers to pass their savings  under Medicare for All on to workers. Sanders estimates the annual savings per worker at $12,000. 

“We’re going to expand Medicare to cover dental care, hearing aids, eyeglasses, and home health care so elderly people aren’t pushed out of their homes into nursing homes,” he said to cheers from the crowd.   

“Just so we’re clear for all the media,” Taylor, standing alongside Warren, told the crowd. “The healthcare system in this country has to change.  Health care should be a right and not a privilege and no one should go without it.”

Amber, a Las Vegas hotel worker, says she supports the effort to expand health care to everyone.   

“Here’s the thing.  The union fought for their rights for years so why not get all of us to unify so everyone has the same health benefits we have?” she asked.   

Taylor says corporations, not workers with good benefits, should shoulder the cost of universal coverage.  Meanwhile, he’s urging Congress to “start with some tangible things” like the price of drugs.

“We’re the only government in the world that doesn’t control the price of drugs,” he said in an interview. “That could happen tomorrow.”  

The albatross around Biden’s neck: The Obama administration’s attempt via the Affordable Care Act to tax so-called “Cadillac health plans” such as the Culinary’s.  Implementation of the tax is currently on hold. Biden vowed to do away with it.

While Biden mentioned that his former Senate colleagues, Sanders and Warren, favor Medicare for All, the former vice-president aimed his criticism at Donald Trump.

“Now, look what this guy’s doing,” Biden said, gesturing to a wall mural of Donald Trump. “Deporting people who served in our military and/or their children because they are not citizens.” 

According to news reports, the Obama administration also deported military veterans.     

Biden’s campaign declined to address the vice president’s remarks or say whether he lobbied President Obama to halt the deportation of veterans.   

Taylor, who served as Secretary-Treasurer of the Culinary Union before taking the reins of UNITE HERE, heaped praise on all three candidates.  

On Elizabeth Warren: 

“I am very proud. I am very honored and I am very excited that we have champions of workers running for president of the United States that not only care about us but understand us,” Taylor said during his introduction of Warren.

On Bernie Sanders: 

“When Penny Pritzker of the Hyatt company got nominated as Commerce Secretary under the Obama administration, she got confirmed even though we had a big fight with Hyatt at the time,” Taylor told those attending the event with Sanders. “She got confirmed, now think about this, 99 to 1. Guess who the one was?” 

“Bernie, Bernie,” the crowd chanted.  

“Recently we were on strike with the largest hotel company in the world, Marriot Corporation,” Taylor said.  “Marriot is a powerful corporation. We had some people we thought were friends, too. We couldn’t find them. They had amnesia.  Senator Sanders was right there on the picket line with us in San Diego.” 

On Joe Biden: 

“Senator Biden was one of the keynote speakers at our union’s convention in 1974.  So he’s been a supporter of our union longer than a lot of you people have been alive,” Taylor quipped.   

“On Capitol Hill, we have a lot of what I call sunshine friends. They learn the words labor union only around election time.  Then they forget us. That’s not the case with Senator Biden.”  

“Here in Las Vegas you have billionaires named the Fertittas who aren’t satisfied with their billions.  They used to say ‘we just want to have a secret ballot election.’ That’s a bunch of bullcrap,” Taylor yelled. “We’ve had secret ballot elections. We’ve kicked their ass and they still won’t negotiate in good faith.  The person who has gone and reached out to the Fertittas to do the right thing repeatedly, has told them he’s going to be on our side of the picket line if we have one, is Vice President Biden.”   

Taylor noted the company refuses to negotiate contracts with the union.  

“Some of them are going to go to jail,” Biden said of the Fertittas, who own a controlling interest in the company. Biden says he intends to add criminal liability to The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act.  It would augment the rights to strike, organize and sue employers who violate workers’ rights.

Station Casinos did not respond to requests for comment regarding Biden’s remarks.

Questions posed by members of the Culinary’s parent union, UNITE HERE, offered a glimpse of challenges the candidates face elsewhere. 

Nia Winston, president of UNITE HERE Local 24 in Michigan and Ohio, talked about the loss of manufacturing jobs in Detroit. She noted that Trump won Michigan by just 10,000 votes. 

“Some like to say they attribute that to the rustic areas, but the truth is there was low voter turnout in the city of Detroit, and we can’t let that happen again. So, my question is what would you do to bring good jobs back to cities like Detroit and how would you re-energize the voters?” she asked Sanders. 

“We are going to make it easier for workers to join unions,” Sanders said to cheers. “You talk about Detroit.  A lot of kids, African American, Latino kids having a hard time affording college. They’re leaving school with massive debts.  We’re going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free and we’re going to cancel student debt.”  

Carmen Ramos, a housekeeper of 26 years from Orlando, told Warren about colleagues who are homeless and others who work two jobs.    

“What are you going to do to organize workers so one job should be enough?” she asked.  

Warren recalled how her father’s heart attack forced her mother to go to work full time in a minimum wage job at Sears, which saw the family through the exceptionally rough spot. 

“Today a full-time minimum wage job won’t keep a mama and her baby out of poverty,” Warren said, noting she’s not cozying up to corporations.  

“I’m not going to the billionaires and asking them to put up the big bucks.  I’m not doing closed-door fundraisers where I make promises that nobody else gets to hear to the folks that are rich. Do you know who gets access to my time?  You.”

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.