Nevada’s Culinary Union, Bernie Sanders, and Labor’s Missed Opportunity

Nevada’s Culinary Union, Bernie Sanders, and Labor’s Missed Opportunity

Nevada’s Culinary Union, Bernie Sanders, and Labor’s Missed Opportunity

The powerful Las Vegas local’s officers retreated into “fortress unionism.”


After winning the most votes in both the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, Bernie Sanders goes into Nevada as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president. Early voting began Saturday and runs through February 18, with the caucuses on February 22. As of this writing, the most recent poll of the state shows Sanders in the lead, seven points ahead of a fading Joe Biden in second place. Sanders’s lead is widening in national polls, and a Morning Consult poll shows him with overwhelming support among Latinos nationally, in keeping with a study of ActBlue data that demonstrates he has raised four times as much money from Latino contributors as any other Democratic candidate. In Iowa’s handful of majority-Latino caucus locations, Sanders walked away with two-thirds of the vote.

Latino voters are much more numerous in Nevada—accounting for 19.7 percent of eligible voters—and critically important to Democratic politics in the state. Once a reliably Republican state with a strong libertarian streak, Nevada has recently become more Democratic, including at the state level where there is now a Democratic “trifecta” with the party holding both houses of the legislature and the governorship. While this shift is powered by Latino voters, it is not the result of simple “demographic destiny”: The Latino vote had to be organized.

And no organization has played a more important role in changing the politics of the state than the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union Local 226, the largest affiliate of the nationwide hospitality workers union, UNITE HERE. Culinary represents most of the casino resorts in downtown Las Vegas and the Strip, and its majority-women, majority-Latinx members have won a middle-income standard of living for themselves. They have done it by wringing concessions from casino bosses, through disciplined organization and militant, traditional trade-union struggle. That has included a repeatedly proven willingness to strike. Casinos know that they stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in the event of a citywide strike like the one in 1984. When most of Culinary’s contracts were up in the spring of 2018, 99 percent of members voted to authorize a strike—prompting employers to once again settle contracts on terms favorable to the workers.

From this base, Culinary has also built a political turnout machine that has played the single largest organizational role in moving Nevada into the Democratic column. If it chose to do so, the union could now play that same outsize role in helping elect the most pro-worker president the country has ever seen. That wouldn’t be out of character for Culinary. UNITE HERE’s Massachusetts locals, for instance, have come to the aid of Senator Ed Markey, co-sponsor of the “Green New Deal,” even as the state’s Democratic establishment has lined up behind yet another vacuous Kennedy scion in a primary challenge from Markey’s right. UNITE HERE locals in Texas and California have endorsed Sanders for president.

In the upcoming Nevada primary, however, Culinary’s officers have chosen a different path. With Biden having collapsed in the first two states, they held a press conference on February 13 announcing the union would make no endorsement. But that came only after several days of controversy designed to undermine Sanders. At issue is the Vermont senator’s proposal to expand Medicare to cover everyone in the country, guaranteeing health care to all—what wonks used to call “single-payer” health care.

The union’s members in Nevada fought hard, in multiple strikes, to achieve a zero-deductible health plan financed through employer contributions to a fund jointly administered by union and employer trustees. Last week, Culinary circulated a leaflet among its membership claiming that the Sanders proposal would “end Culinary health care.” For workers who know what it took to win and what it takes to preserve their health fund, the message was unmistakable.

But the Culinary officers’ claim is absurd on its face. First, Sanders’s proposed tax-funded national health insurance system—unlike Culinary’s health fund—would have zero co-pays, i.e., it would be free at the point of service, and so would be an improvement over what Culinary members now have.

Secondly, Medicare for All would save the casinos billions of dollars. They would be paying taxes into a system that covers the whole country as one giant risk pool, rather than funding an expensive family health plan for their own workforce alone. Union members would no longer have to fight to keep their health care at every round of contract negotiations. (Along with everyone else in the country, they would also no longer risk losing their health care if they went on strike—or if they changed jobs.) With their health care needs guaranteed as a right by the federal government, Culinary members could use their disciplined organization and their willingness to strike to fight for other uses of that money: better retirement benefits, for instance, or preventing robots from taking their jobs, rather than more money in the casino bosses’ bank accounts.

Culinary’s officers have given in to one of the most damaging temptations in the US labor movement: the instinct to retreat into “fortress unionism.” The notion is that union members can maintain their own oasis in the desert, with high standards, even as the rest of the working class loses ground. This approach didn’t work out so well for the United Mine Workers of America, who, in a different era, built health care centers and a health care network as good as Culinary’s, only to see it all decimated, along with their union.

There is also a more prosaic—and cynical—institutional imperative at work. Nevada is a “right to work” state, meaning that it is illegal for union contracts to contain a clause requiring all workers to be members of the union. Culinary nevertheless maintains a high level of membership, not only because of the high standards they have won, but also because newly hired casino workers need to go to the union hall to sign up for benefits, where they are also signed up for the union. If everyone’s health care is guaranteed as a right, that institutional advantage will no longer exist.

Opposing national health insurance for these narrow institutional reasons is not only shortsighted politically, but shows an unwarranted lack of faith in Culinary’s own members. Culinary members, with the help of talented organizing staff, have shown that they well understand the importance of their union, and that they are willing to do what it takes to defend their livelihoods. Members would be better served by the leadership placing confidence in them, fully expecting them to understand that maintaining a strong union funded by members’ dues is essential for many reasons.

Good union organizers, like those employed by Culinary, should also recognize in Sanders a kindred spirit, who thinks and acts like an organizer. His opponents claim that Sanders is making unrealistic “promises” to the voters—exactly what bosses always say in an organizing campaign: “The union is making promises that it can’t keep.” But no good organizer ever promises anything to workers: not better pay, not better benefits, not more time off. The only thing a good organizer promises workers is this: You will achieve what you are willing to stand up and fight for, nothing more; but if you don’t make the demand in the first place, then you guarantee that you will never get anything.

Bernie Sanders says the same thing: Even as president, he wouldn’t be able to win all of the things he talks about, unless millions of people are willing to stand up and demand them. He guarantees nothing, save the most important thing: that he will be right there with the working class if people stand up and fight for Medicare for All that is free at the point of service; a Green New Deal to create good union jobs and save the planet; tuition-free public colleges, universities, and trade schools—and all of that, regardless of your immigration status.

We’ve never had a president quite like that. If the labor movement—starting with one of its most militant and successful locals—were to take the opportunity to elect such a president, that could open up possibilities of a kind we have never seen. But just as in a union organizing campaign, if we don’t resolve to fight for those things in the first place, we guarantee our own defeat.

Increasingly, US unions have demonstrated a practical interest in advancing progressive changes that benefit everyone. We saw examples of this just last year.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles, after a six-school-day strike in January 2019, won a 6 percent pay increase, reductions in class size, and guaranteed nurses and librarians in all schools—all of which directly benefited union members. But the union also got the school district to agree to a dedicated hotline and attorney for immigrant families of its students, who are facing stepped-up harassment by ICE in the Trump era, and the creation of a “Green Space Task Force” to ensure more green space for students’ physical activity.

The Chicago Teachers Union, after an 11-school-day strike in October 2019, won pay increases, reductions in health care co-pays, enforceable caps on class sizes, and guaranteed social workers and nurses in every school. But they also won a ban on ICE entry to school buildings without a criminal court warrant, as well as increased support for students experiencing homelessness.

These two unions fought for and won broad-based demands that benefited the whole community. They did so not only because it was the right thing to do, but also because the public elects their bosses, and it was in their immediate interest to build broad public support. Union workers in casinos, hotels, warehouses, hospitals, and elsewhere will be better off when they recognize the same thing: It is in unions’ interests to fight for higher standards that lift up the whole society. Unions will be politically vulnerable so long as they are seen as just another “special interest,” taking care of only their own narrow concerns.

In the early days of the movement, there was a saying that “the cause of labor is the hope of the world.” That is still true, and workers could use some hope—some real hope—that things will not just “go back to normal,” but will actually get better, once we dislodge the failed casino boss who currently rules us all.

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