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The Broader Democratic Socialist Program Won Over Culinary Workers

Many members of the Culinary Workers Union believe Sanders can unite voters over issues other than health care.

Members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 picket outside The Palms Casino as Station Casinos' workers fight for a first union contract in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 19, 2020.

The Saturday of the Nevada Caucus began just like any other weekend for Monica Smith, an in-room dining server at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Smith works Wednesdays through Mondays and by 7:00 a.m. she was already at her workstation. But that day she was wearing something different: Her Culinary Union t-shirt and a jacket from her volunteer organizer days.

“Don’t forget, today is the day,” she told her boss as she walked in.

By 11:00 a.m., Smith, who has been a member of the union since 1987, had started mobilizing her coworkers on her way to the ballroom, where 123 caucus-goers, surrounded by reporters, would gather in groups and show support for a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

With the eyes of the nation on her union — a diverse group of cooks, housekeepers, bartenders and more — Smith got ready to show what she calls the “true pulse of America.” Introducing herself as a Bernie Sanders supporter, she gave her realignment speech: “I love my union and my health care plan, but Bernie doesn’t want to restrict our great health care coverage. He wants to expand it to everyone,” Smith said. “Don’t our children deserve the right to health care? Don’t all of our neighbors and workers outside of Culinary deserve great health care their whole lives too?”

It was taken for granted that the mobilization of the hospitality workers would be on the candidates’ and the media’s radar. The Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a UNITE HERE affiliate, constitutes a political force, representing 60,000 hotel and casino employees in Nevada — more than half of whom are Latinx — and claiming to be the largest immigrant organization in the state. But adding to the anticipation was the fact that the union leadership announced in mid-February that it wouldn’t be endorsing a candidate. “We’re going to endorse our goals,” secretary-treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said during a press conference in Las Vegas.

One of these goals is to preserve the current Culinary Union’s employer-provided health plan that they bargained over for years. Their leadership criticized Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal in a flyer distributed to members, saying it would effectively eliminate the worker’s health care. Supporters of the Vermont senator responded vehemently, leading union leaders to allege that the senator’s “supporters have viciously attacked the Culinary Union.”

Ahead of the Nevada Caucus, as reports of a feud between the front-runner and the powerful union over health care emerged, other candidates quickly tried to capitalize on it. During a debate, Pete Buttigieg said Sanders was “at war” with the Culinary Union, while Amy Klobuchar argued that 149 million Americans would lose their health insurance under the proposed single government plan.

But as results started to come in on Saturday, it became clear that many rank-and-file workers hadn’t been moved by such arguments. Indeed, Sanders won at five out of the seven caucuses on the Las Vegas strip and took at least 47 percent of the county convention delegates, powered by young, Latinx and liberal voters. In a victory speech delivered in Texas, the candidate praised the grassroots movements backing his campaign, saying it “brought together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition, which is not only going to win in Nevada, it’s going to sweep this country.”

The decision by rank-and-file workers to go against the union leadership’s position and support Sanders because of Medicare for All might have come as a surprise for many, but not for Smith. She had spent almost every day of the past several months having conversations with her coworkers in the hotel dining room — what she calls “table hopping” — about everything from Marxism and social democracy to Medicare for All.

“I knew we were going to have a big Bernie turnout,” Smith said. “I sit at the tables with the dishwashers and the servers. I saw the pins and the buttons and I’ve been invited to many homes for like-minded Bernie Sanders people.” If there was a disconnect somewhere, it was between union leaders and the workers. “We do have opinions and sometimes our leadership doesn’t listen to us,” she said. “Unless you are a shop steward invited to the inner circle meeting, the general members don’t hear from the leadership.”

Some union members also said that despite the non-endorsement, they felt manipulated by the leadership, who they thought gave signs to favor Joe Biden over other candidates. Ultimately, however, they took pride in making up their own minds. “We’re not dumb and we’re not sleepy,” Jose Alvarez, another long-time union member said.

In the days following the caucus, Smith said she reached out to the leadership, but it’s been “a hit and miss.” If she gets a chance, she said she’ll ask them if they are “representing the culinary union members or pushing their own plate.”

Argüello-Kline said there was no underlying tension, reinforcing that the workers are encouraged to vote for whoever they want. “Our mission is to keep the union strong and to protect our contracts,” she said. “Now we have to move on to what we have to do. We have to defeat Trump.”

More than 130,000 workers and their family members are covered by the Culinary Health Fund plan, which is advertised as the best in the state. And while many workers agree that that’s the case, they are also acutely aware of its shortcomings, such as high copays and prescription costs. The free plan is also conditional on the number of hours worked, which for union member Marcie Wells, who suffers from chronic illnesses and has struggled to find a specialist in her area, means she not only owes money but is at risk of losing her coverage altogether. Those advocating for Medicare for All say it would not only allow workers to stay insured even if they lost their jobs, but it would also free unions from having to bargain for health care.

Despite some skepticism about its viability, Sanders’s proposal to lower health care costs naturally appeals to workers. But more importantly, they want others to have access to the same benefits they currently have, whether they are union members or not. If the Nevada Caucuses were in any way a referendum on Medicare for All, the rank-and-file workers were clear about where they stand: It’s not just about them, it’s about everyone. For Smith, in standing with Sanders, they sent out a message of solidarity.

Many of the Culinary Workers Union members also said they believe Sanders can unite voters over issues other than health care, like education. Guadalupe Niswonger, who is from Mexico and has been a member of the Culinary Union for thirty years, said she supports him because of his College for All Act and plan to cancel all student debt. After graduating from the University of Nevada, her son still owes more than $100,000 in debt.

And other union members said they were drawn by Sanders’s promise to raise the federal minimum wage or immigration platform, which is arguably the most progressive in the race. There are also those who value his consistency and the campaign’s efforts to connect with Latinx voters, especially young ones who then go on to convince their parents to embrace “Tío Bernie.”

“He has the ideas that we need to change this country,” Alvarez said. “He’s closer to us than anyone else. I get hope from him because he tells the truth I feel inside myself.”

“We’re looking for a better leader,” Smith added. “There’s hope in the land.”

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