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Nev. union support for Sanders shows limits of labor warning

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign event in San Antonio, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign event in San Antonio, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Members of Nevada’s most politically powerful labor group were warned by union leaders that Bernie Sanders’ plan would doom their prized health care, but they voted for him anyway.

The casino workers of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 are powerful enough in Nevada Democratic politics that special caucus sites are set up in Las Vegas Strip casinos to accommodate them. In at least four of those seven caucus sites Saturday, workers threw their support behind Sanders.

The results are a warning sign to labor unions that any attempt to influence the primary risks being ignored, and a harbinger of Sanders' strength with working-class voters, Latinos and labor rank and file — all voters that will be critical in California’s delegate-rich primary early next month.

Morena Del Cid, a Culinary Union member and a porter at the Bellagio casino-resort, said she voted for Sanders because she thinks “we need a lot of change in this country." She said that she knows Joe Biden had ties to her union’s leaders, but she felt Biden and President Barack Obama’s administration didn’t get enough done on immigration and gun control after eight years in power.

“We need something different. Somebody different. Somebody strong to put out Donald Trump,” she said.

Culinary, like its parent union Unite Here, officially decided not to endorse, joining a number of national unions making a similar calculation to stay on the sidelines of a still-crowded primary and avoid causing dissension among their ranks.

The 60,000-member Culinary Union didn’t stay totally neutral, however, sending out leaflets to members in recent weeks that said candidates pushing for a government-run insurance system under “Medicare for All” would force “millions of hard-working people to give up their healthcare” and create “unnecessary division between workers, and will give us four more years of Trump." One leaflet specifically said Sanders’ would “end Culinary healthcare.”

Angel Lazcano, a 46-year-old busperson at the Aria and a Culinary Union member, didn’t heed the warnings. Lazcano cited Medicare for All as one of the things that drew him to Sanders.

With Medicare for All, Lazcano said, "everybody can choose their own doctors instead of going through the insurance and taking only the doctors that use the insurance.”

Geoconda Argüello-Kline, Culinary’s leader, pushed back against the notion that the union’s members failure to heed the warnings about Medicare for All is a sign of weakness, arguing that despite the leaflets, the union wasn’t campaigning against any candidate.

“We want the members to have the right information, but we know some members, they agree with that, some members don’t agree with that,” Argüello-Kline said.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara, said that like all other voters, laborers make decisions based on values.

“Unionists are not green eyeshades accountants who say, ‘How is this going to help me?’” he said

One of those values is fighting for all working people, said Mark Dimonstein, president of the American Post Workers, which backs Sanders. “Unions are at our best not just for the workers we represent but for the betterment of the working class in general,” he said.

Dimonstein said his members’ federal health benefits are better than many workers’ plans but there is still dissatisfaction as rising premiums keep cutting into workers’ pay checks. “Postal workers would be far better off with Medicare for All,” he said

Jody Domineck, a nurse in Las Vegas and executive board member with a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, said that though many union members enjoy good insurance, it’s something that they have to continually fight for and questioned why employers use as a bargaining chip.

“Even though we do have good benefits, they are threatened continually. And I feel like if we had an overall plan or some other access, that wouldn’t be a tool that could be used against us.

Domineck said she doesn’t know if Medicare for All is the best plan but she’s open to it. She voted for Elizabeth Warren, who also has proposed a Medicare for All plan.

Whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, including Sanders, Argüello-Kline said Sunday that the Culinary Union plans to put 100 percent of its effort behind the nominee in service of a broader goal — defeating Donald Trump.

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Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper and Nicholas Riccardi in Las Vegas contributed to this report.