The Nevada Union That Could Determine Bernie’s Fate

Bernie Sanders holds a microphone and points
Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Desert Pines High School on Saturday in Las Vegas. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nevada’s Culinary Union is not just any labor advocacy organization—it’s the engine of the state’s electoral infrastructure. In 2008, it backed Barack Obama when he still seemed like a long shot against Hillary Clinton, helping his campaign take the lead in the Democratic primary. In the last election cycle, the union pushed for Nevada to elect its first Democratic governor in 20 years. And when Nevada was the only state to flip a Republican Senate seat blue in 2018, the elected senator was a member of the union.

So the union garnered significant attention over the past week because of its implicit criticism of Bernie Sanders—a flyer distributed to members stated that Bernie Sanders wants to “End Culinary Healthcare.” The union didn’t endorse any of the other Democratic candidates, but the dig was clear. And what Culinary has to say matters as the Nevada caucuses come to a head this weekend.

On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Steven Greenhouse, a former labor reporter at the New York Times, about the power of the Culinary Union and what its criticism of Sanders means for the campaign. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: Who makes up the Culinary Union’s membership?

Steven Greenhouse: It’s majority Latino, majority immigrant, majority women. It’s a union of hotel housekeepers, dishwashers, bellhops, hotel porters, assistant cooks, and some waiters. It represents the people who work behind the scenes to run the restaurants and operate the huge hotel casinos.

Culinary really seems to run the Las Vegas Strip. It’s not afraid to have members go on strike for months, or even years, to get what they want out of a hotel.

A lot of the hotels realize that if they don’t play ball with Culinary, it has the power to make life difficult for them. Of all the unions I’ve seen in the nation, this one has the best shop stewards network, which mobilizes members, keeps them in form, communicates with them, gets them out to protests, and involves them in political campaigns: knocking on doors, making phone calls, getting people registered, getting people to vote early.

This is why politicians need to play ball with the Culinary: When the union members get behind a candidate, they get behind a candidate. In the last presidential election, Nevada went blue. And the union takes credit for that.

In the 2016 election, members spoke to 75,000 voters and knocked on 350,000 doors. They got 8,000 people to register to vote. They also got 54,000 people to vote early. Culinary and its parent union, Unite Here, have 300 to 400 workers who take six to eight weeks off from work and just do campaign work—not only around Las Vegas, but throughout Nevada.

When they knock on the doors of Culinary members and other union members, they make clear that they’re fighting for issues like saving health care. They’re really issue-oriented.

I wonder what it says to you that the main issue the union is picking up on right now is “Medicare for All”?

There is a division within the labor movement about “Medicare for All.” Some union leaders say the policy would be great—it would take the whole issue of health coverage off the table in union negotiations and might enable members to focus more on wage increases. But folks at the Culinary Union say they have a great health plan now, and they’re worried that with “Medicare for All” they’d end up with something worse.

It makes sense that the Culinary Union would take pride in its health care benefits. It runs its own insurance program and its own pharmacy. And if you work 30 hours a week, you don’t pay any premiums, either. 

This union has its own free health center where you go to the doctor. The prescriptions are often free or have a relatively low price. The union can do this because it takes the insurance middleman out of the picture—it’s run by the workers, for the workers, of the workers.

I watched a little bit of a video of Bernie Sanders speaking to the union folks. And it was so different than other candidate union appearances I’ve seen. When he started talking about “Medicare for All,” people started interrupting him. They were asking, who’s going to pay for this? And it seemed to me the union was doing exactly what you want to do for these workers, which is: give them a voice. You can talk to these politicians and demand what you want and need.

It shows these are emboldened, empowered workers who are willing to speak up. On the other hand, some Sanders supporters say a few union leaders or outsiders who don’t love Sanders ask members to plant these questions to make life tougher for Sanders.

Do you think it’s fair for Sanders supporters to criticize the questioners at these events as “plants”?

It’s legitimate to ask whether questioning “Medicare for All” is part of a top-down decision by the unions. It reflects the concerns of rank-and-file members—some union officials have relatives who are involved in health care jobs, and they have raised questions about that.

But Culinary is extremely proud of its health plan and is eager to guard it. So I’m not at all surprised that union members would worry about “Medicare for All.” It’s a fear of the unknown.

In a way, this was the most savvy thing the union members could do, because they’re saying, We’re going to stay out of this for now, but Bernie, if you make it to the end here, you’re going to have to come see us.

As a union leader, if you’re going to make an endorsement, you want to make a real difference, ensure the endorsement doesn’t anger too many of your members, and win some favors down the road.

There are so many candidates now, and it’s unclear who’s going to win. At this juncture, the Culinary Union and its parent both made a rational choice. They feel the practical thing is to hold their fire and wait for things to clarify. If they thought there was a candidate who is better—and they clearly thought that about Obama vis-à-vis Hillary in 2008—they’re willing to stick their necks out, especially when it’s clear the person they’re leaning toward endorsing is likely to get the nomination. Now it’s just a whole muddle. They don’t want to help mess up things further.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.