Unite Here labor union staying neutral in Democratic primary

Politics
Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., reacts during a town hall meeting at the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 hosted by UNITE HERE, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019, in Las Vegas. Sanders, appearing before several hundred union workers in Las Vegas, explained his Medicare for All plan, which would switch the country to a government-run system and eliminate private health insurance. (Krystal Ramirez/Las Vegas Sun via AP)

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The international union representing hotel and casino workers said Tuesday that it will not endorse a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary, casting doubt as to whether its influential Nevada local will follow suit ahead of the state’s caucuses.

A statement from Unite Here, the parent of the large Nevada union representing hotel and casino workers,did not indicate whether the Culinary Union, the union’s largest local, would issue its own endorsement before Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucuses.

The Culinary Union, a 60,000-member group made up of housekeepers, bartenders, porters and others who work in the casino resorts, is considered one of the more influential forces in Democratic politics in the state. Democratic candidates have been aggressive in courting the group’s support.

Nationally, many unions have stayed on the sidelines in the primary, wary of lining up behind a candidate in the absence of a clear front-runner. Compounding the anxiety is bad blood over 2016, when several unions endorsed Hillary Clinton early in the Democratic presidential contest only to see Bernie Sanders surge and hear complaints from members.

The Culinary Union sat out the 2016 Democratic primary after a divisive endorsement eight years earlier undermined its image as a well-oiled political machine.

With Unite Here’s International Union deciding to stay neutral, the Las Vegas-based Culinary Union, its most closely aligned local, may follow its lead and sit out again.D. Taylor, the international president of Unite Here, is the former head of the Culinary Union and is still a fixture at the Las Vegas local’s events.

In Nevada, the third state to cast votes in the presidential contest, a lack of a signal from the Culinary Union in 2020 would likely leave no clear front-runner in the race. The union doesn’t have a timeline for when it will make a decision on whether to get into the race.

The closer to Nevada’s caucuses that any support is announced, the power of an endorsement and the organizing strength that comes with it would be diminished.

In 2008, the Culinary Union waited until 10 days before the Nevada caucuses to announce it was backing Barack Obama over Clinton. The decision was a boon to Obama, but it caused division among the union’s ranks and had a muted impact on the vote. Clinton won the popular vote in the state and had a strong showing at the at-large caucus sites dominated by Culinary members working on the Las Vegas Strip.

The leadership of the international union made the decision Tuesday during a meeting in Atlanta, according to spokeswoman Annemarie Strassel.

In a statement, Unite Here said, “Any local endorsing in the primary will be weighing the candidates’ positions on the key economic justice issues for our Union, such as supporting the right to organize unions, immigration reform, criminal justice reform and reining in the price of healthcare.”

The union’s decision to stay out likely reflects strong divisions within its ranks for who is the best candidate. Unions now find themselves in a similar role to the broader Democratic electorate, still undecided between many options.

As evidence of that, one Unite Here affiliate issued its own endorsement Tuesday ahead of the international union’s statement. Unite Here Local 11 out of Southern California jointly endorsed Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, saying the two liberal candidates have a “track record of standing with Local 11 members in their fights against corporate power.”

It was not the first Unite Here affiliate to wade into the presidential race. The union’s New York affiliate, the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, issued an endorsement in June 2019 of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who later dropped out of the presidential race.

Without results from the first votes being cast, many unions and Democratic voters still seem to be weighing their options before aligning with a candidate.

“There’s excitement about this election among the labor movement, and we’re taking a close look at all of the candidates and all of the plans and raising the bar really high,” said Tim Schlittner, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, which hasn’t made an endorsement and doesn’t know if it will.

The Service Employees International Union is also still holding its fire. “The overwhelming majority of SEIU members are still undecided about who will best address their demands that the next president move power away from corporations and back towards working people,” its president, Mary Kay Henry, said. “Just like voters across the country, they want to hear who is going to fight to ensure all families, no matter the color of their skin or where they were born, can thrive.”

Eddie Vale, a Democratic operative who has long worked in the labor movement, said unions may be hesitating because of “an embarrassment of riches for labor.” In contrast to past cycles, the Democratic contenders have gone out of their way to tout their friendliness to unions. Labor doesn’t “have to put all of their hopes and support into one candidate, and membership support is divided up between a lot of people, so the incentives push against endorsement,” Vale said.

The exceptions have been the few international unions with long-standing ties to candidates who have endorsed, such as the International Association of Fire Fighters, which backed former Vice President Joe Biden, or the National Nurses United, a longtime supporter of Sanders’ that also endorsed him in 2016.

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Riccardi reported from Denver.

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