Before the leading Democratic contenders showed up for Wednesday’s presidential debate in Las Vegas, the majority of them made a point of going by the Palms Casino Resort, where the powerful Culinary Union Local 226 was holding a picket. The union—which boasts 60,000 members and calls itself the largest immigrant group in the state, and which was the first union in the nation to endorse Barack Obama in 2008—had declined to endorse a candidate, but that just meant the would-be nominees were trying to cultivate the workers’ goodwill as Saturday’s Nevada caucuses closed in.
With cumbersome press entourages following each candidate, the picketing soon got physically awkward. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first on the scene, and her arrival led the union members to fall out of their looped marching pattern and start trailing after her en masse, in one single direction. Harried organizers had to steer them back into formation: “Come on, this way!”
The others each brought their own form of entropy. For Pete Buttigieg, the back of the line simply stopped moving, waiting for the former South Bend mayor to make his arrival. Former vice president Joe Biden and his large media contingent started walking in the wrong direction, against the loop, causing a minor traffic jam. Billionaire Tom Steyer, who’d missed qualifying for the debate, marched halfway around the loop and made his exit by simply cutting through the formation. And by the time Sen. Amy Klobuchar was making the circuit, union leaders were calling for the picketers to drop out of line and come take in speeches from Local 226 officials.
The only missing candidates were former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose self-funded megadollar ad-blitz campaign isn’t on the ballot in Nevada, and the national polling frontrunner, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’d received the union’s anti-endorsement, in the form of a memo warning Local 226 members that his Medicare for All plan would confiscate their current, collectively bargained healthcare benefits.
But as the picketing difficulties suggested, being against Sanders is not the same thing as having an alternative plan. The union, like the Democratic Party establishment, has not identified someone to get behind—a difficulty that carried through the debate, when a handful of candidates had strong nights beating up Bloomberg but none of them emerged as a clear No. 2 to Sanders.
In Nevada, where Sanders’ lead has skyrocketed in recent days following a virtual tie for the win in Iowa and a clear-cut victory in New Hampshire, the Vermont senator seems poised to take advantage of the divided field and remain on a slow but steady trajectory to the nomination.
That doesn’t mean that the culinary union isn’t keeping up a blistering critique of Sanders, or that the other candidates aren’t trying to join in. Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, has been telling everyone who will listen that she and the union’s director of communications, Bethany Khan, have continued to face harassment from Sanders supporters ever since Local 226 released a scorecard of Democratic candidates that said Sanders’ plan would “End Culinary Healthcare.”
On Tuesday night, at a women’s event at the union hall, Argüello-Kline called on Sanders to denounce these supporters in stronger terms, and for Sanders to specifically address the fact that the harassment has been targeted at two women of color instead of the president of the entire union, Ted Pappageorge.
“What has happened has been a terrible attack from Sen. Sanders’ followers to me and to Bethany Khan, the two women supporters, but not to the president, who is a white man,” Argüello-Kline told her members, before Warren and Klobuchar addressed them. Argüello-Kline says she had received more than 1,000 abusive or threatening messages, from Twitter, to phone calls, to text messages, some of them telling her to leave the country.
It’s unclear how many of these are from Bernie supporters and how many might be from bad actors entirely unconnected to Sanders, but Argüello-Kline has been adamant that Sanders’ supporters are responsible. “You don’t think he has to say, ‘Stop attacking women of color’?” she told reporters. “If I’m the leader of this union and I see the women of color coming under attack, I would say that.”
Sanders initially put out a generic statement calling for “supporters of all campaigns not to engage in bullying or ugly personal attacks” and not acknowledging the role his own supporters might be playing in the harassment. On Tuesday, Sanders denied that his campaign workers were attacking the union leaders, again refusing to address whether his supporters might be involved.
The agenda for Wednesday’s debate, which managed to skip over any real mentions of war and foreign policy, made room for discussing the hostilities between the union and the Sanders camp. Asked about it onstage, Sanders said that his own backers who are women of color face their own abuse, and he suggested that some of the attacks on culinary union officials might be from trolls.
“If you want to talk to some of the women on my campaign, what you will see is the most ugly, sexist, racist attacks that are—I wouldn’t even describe them here, they’re so disgusting,” Sanders said. “And let me say something else about this, not being too paranoid. All of us remember 2016, and what we remember is efforts by Russians and others to try to interfere in our election and divide us up. I’m not saying that’s happening, but it would not shock me.”
Again, Sanders denied that his supporters might have attacked these union leaders: “I saw some of those tweets regarding the Culinary Workers Union. I have a 30-year 100 percent pro-union voting record. Do you think I would support or anybody who supports me would be attacking union leaders? It’s not thinkable.” Slate asked the culinary union if it was satisfied with the response. “Any woman on Twitter who is an organizer or who works in the political space is well aware of the consequences of being a target of ROSE Twitter, especially women of color,” responded Khan, referencing the emoji Democratic socialists use on Twitter. “The fact is that two women of color have been attacked and continue to be targets, just for voicing our opinion. We remain, to this day, under attack by folks who wish to dismiss or gaslight us. We will not be silent.”
The Sanders campaign also insists that his plan would not hurt the unions. “We have great respect for culinary. Bernie has great respect for culinary,” Sanders campaign senior advisor Jeff Weaver told me after the debate. “Bernie Sanders will not sign a bill that does not provide better benefits than folks already have and culinary workers like workers at every union in this country will see an increase in their paycheck because Medicare For All will mandate that employers who save money under a collective bargaining agreement when we move to Medicare for All has to pass those savings on to workers in the form of extra compensation.”
That promise is clearly not good enough for Argüello-Kline and many of her members. “I will always tell the facts to the members, it’s their health care,” she told reporters. “Our health care has not been a gift.”
At the Tuesday union hall event, I spoke with two women of color who said they were supporting Biden and that their top issue was health care.
“I love Sen. Warren. I love that she’s family oriented, pro-woman,” said Sheena Reid, a Biden supporter who is black. “I’m not so much for her universal health care because [I want to keep] my union health care.”
Wendy Almada, a naturalized citizen who came to the United States from Mexico when she was 11 years old, also said that she was voting for Biden because she wanted to “keep my insurance” and “not be on Medicare.”
Sanders’ debate opponents tried to take further advantage of the union rift on Wednesday night. Buttigieg accused Sanders of being “at war with the Culinary Union right here in Las Vegas,” while Warren repeated a previous line that “We are all responsible for our supporters and we need to step up.”
The campaign for Bloomberg, who has been no friend of unions, put out a series of talking points criticizing Sanders supporters for “’divisive ‘energy’” and even put out an ad “taking on ‘Bernie Bros.’”
But none of the negativity against Sanders seemed to be helping anyone else produce positive results. In the most recent RealClearPolitics Nevada polling average—mostly taken before the debate—he was in a commanding 14-point lead with 30 percent of the vote and with five other candidates sharing between 10 and 16 percent of the vote each and nobody pulling away. And with more than 70,000 early caucus votes having already been cast in Nevada prior to Wednesday’s debate, it may be too late for anyone to catch up to Sanders, however the debate performances ultimately land.