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At Culinary Union Town Hall, Bernie Sanders Praises Workers for “Standing Together” and Calls for More Solidarity to Achieve Greater Justice

Just over two months ago, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) suffered a heart attack and faced an outgrowth of “concern” about his “ability to continue campaigning”. Since then, not only has Sanders made what appears to be a full recovery, but he’s also enjoyed quite a bit of recovery in his poll numbers along with renewed energy and purpose on the campaign trail.

Today, just hours after fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) got a crowd of about 350 Culinary Union and other UNITE HERE union members to their feet with her message of “fighting back” with “big, structural change”, it was Sanders’ turn to convince a crowd of about  Culinary and other UNITE HERE members that what America needs is his “political revolution”.

“We have an economy where half of Americans are working paycheck to paycheck. You believe, I believe, one job should be enough.” 
– Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders
Photo by Andrew Davey

A month ago, fellow Senator and then presidential candidate Kamala Harris (D-California) kicked off Culinary’s series of town halls. Not only did she use her campaign’s final tagline of “Justice is on the ballot,” but she also assured the audience, “When we fight for what we believe is possible, even when we have never seen it before, we can make it happen.”

Today, Bernie Sanders followed upon that with this simple request: “I’m here to ask you to help me transform this country so that the economy doesn’t just work for the billionaires, but for all of us.” And in a nod to the uniting theme of UNITE HERE’s town halls here at the Culinary Union hall, Sanders declared, “We have an economy where half of Americans are working paycheck to paycheck. You believe, I believe, one job should be enough.”

Sanders had about as large as a crowd as Elizabeth Warren did last night. But unlike last night, the energy was high throughout the program. However, that resulted in plenty of boisterous enthusiasm for Sanders and plenty of vocal criticism.

“What we are proposing is comprehensive health care, the most comprehensive health care ever introduced. That goes to your wages and your benefits. That’s a big deal.” 
– Bernie Sanders

At Culinary last night, Elizabeth Warren took on the health care question that’s vexed her own campaign and the larger progressive movement this year. As she sought to hit the reset button on the never-ending war of words over “Medicare for All”, she reassured the crowd, “My plan around health care is what you see, what you experience, what you count on for yourself and your family: that part is not supposed to change. What changes is the money and where the money’s supposed to come from.”

And yet, some Culinary members and other jittery Democrats remain unconvinced that single-payer health care is viable or necessary. Today, Bernie Sanders built upon Elizabeth Warren’s health care argument as he reassured the audience that not only will his “Medicare for All” plan be as good as the Culinary Health Fund, but it will also include dental care, in-home health care for those who need it, and a guaranteed annual limit of $200 for out-of-pocket prescription drug costs.

In answering Culinary member Elodia Muñoz’s question on health care, Sanders stated, “Your employer is spending a lot on your health care. Under Medicare for All, we end the profiteering. […] We save hundreds of millions of dollars.” He then promised what will amount to a $12,000 raise for workers as a result of how much “Medicare for All” single-payer will save employers and the government. According to Sanders, “What we are proposing is comprehensive health care, the most comprehensive health care ever introduced. That goes to your wages and your benefits. That’s a big deal.”

However as he went on, some in the audience began to shout “Union health care!” over Sanders. But unlike Sanders’ infamous confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists at Netroots Nation in 2015, UNITE HERE national President D. Taylor quickly shut down their protest and urged the crowd not to heckle Sanders or any of the other visiting candidates.

“The way you beat Donald Trump is to address the pain that working-class voters are feeling.” 
– Bernie Sanders

Just before Culinary’s town hall with Sanders, U.S. House Democratic leaders made their own news with back-to-back announcements: two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of justice, and an agreement with Trump to revise the NAFTA trade regime with Canada and Mexico (what Trump prefers to label as “USMCA”). Democrats like Nevada’s own Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) proclaim, “It is well past time that Congress considered a hemispheric trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada that reflects the modernization of our economy.” Meanwhile, critics like The Daily Beast’s Rick Wilson are asking, “[Democrat’s motivating] energy is the natural reaction to Donald Trump’s corruption, criminality, and evil. Why squander and dilute it?”

At Culinary today, Bernie Sanders didn’t directly address either pressing issue. He did, however, get a question from UNITE HERE Local 24 (based in Detroit, and covers much of Michigan and Ohio) President Nia Winston on how the Democratic Party can win back voters who didn’t turn out for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they were disillusioned with the bipartisan-backed slow-motion dismantling of American manufacturing.

Sanders’ response? “The reason so many voters don’t vote is that they feel their votes don’t count. There’s a lot of pain in this country, a lot of pain that working-class people are feeling.” He continued, “The way you beat Donald Trump is to address the pain that working-class voters are feeling.” And for Sanders, that means the largest public works program since the New Deal, historic investment in K-12 and higher education (including universal tuition-free college and student loan forgiveness), raising the national minimum wage to $15 per hour, and shifting the criminal justice system from mass incarceration to holistic rehabilitation.

After the program, I asked Nia Winston for her response to Sanders’ response. “I was encouraged by a lot of the things [Sanders said] needs to happen,” Winston replied. However, she added, “My options are open” on who she’ll vote for and who UNITE HERE may ultimately endorse.

“Under our administration, we will not give tax breaks to companies that refuse to honor workers right to organize and respect the vote to organize in unions.” 
– Bernie Sanders
Photo by Andrew Davey

As the program went on, Fiesta Henderson worker Matthew Seevers shared his own health care story, one of him and his family struggling to obtain the kind of insurance his 8-year-old daughter needs. But instead of piling onto the earlier protest, Seevers asked Sanders what he will do about Red Rock Resorts/Station Casinos’ ongoing refusal to recognize workers’ votes to join the Culinary Union at Fiesta Henderson and several other Red Rock Resorts/Station Casinos properties. 

Like Warren last night, Sanders today promised a suite of executive actions to boost workers’ power, along with pursuing legislation to require that workers hold at least 50% of corporate governing board seats and 20% of larger companies’ stock. Sanders also promised, “Under our administration, we will not give tax breaks to companies that refuse to honor workers right to organize and respect the vote to organize in unions.” 

Currently, the Fertittas (the majority owners of Red Rock Resorts) want Congress to revise the 2017 tax law and give their company a tax break for its recent $690 million Palms Casino Resort renovation project. After the program, Seevers made it very clear to me, “We need to have a contract now. It’s not right that [Red Rock Resorts] get a tax break when they won’t give us a [union] contract. The majority of my co-workers voted to unionize, and they won’t respect that.” 

Seevers went on to praise Sanders’ presentation, suggest that he might support Sanders’ vision of “Medicare for All” if it means everyone gets the kind of care that Culinary Health Fund provides to union members, but also state that his mind still isn’t made up just yet on who he’ll caucus for. “I think it’s a great idea for everyone to have universal health care,” Seevers told me, though he added, “I need to hear more details on [single-payer].”

“You are heroes and heroines for standing together and fighting for better wages. You have shown the entire country that by standing together, you can earn a decent standard of living.” 
– Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders
Photo by Andrew Davey

For much of the year, the conversation on the campaign trail that we in the media have focused on has honed in on flashpoints on issues like “Medicare for All” and world trade that get reduced to flimsy talking points and cheapened “gotcha” attacks. But at town halls that activists and institutional progressive groups have hosted, town halls like Culinary’s recent events, we often find deeper conversation on a wider array of policies.

That happened again today, where Bernie Sanders fielded questions on everything from immigration reform to climate change to a new economic threat that UNITE HERE members are facing. Towards the end of the program, Culinary member and Golden Nugget porter Maria Balicanta asked Sanders what he’ll do about the rising challenges of the “gig economy”, such as UNITE HERE workers losing business to Airbnb properties that typically don’t have to adhere to labor laws that cover most hotels.

Bernie Sanders
Photo by Andrew Davey

Sanders responded, “You guys have fought hard for your wages and benefits. We will take a hard look at the effect of [Airbnb].” And minutes later, Sanders zoomed out and thanked UNITE HERE members for fighting for each other and the larger labor movement. “You are heroes and heroines for standing together and fighting for better wages. You have shown the entire country that by standing together, you can earn a decent standard of living,” Sanders exclaimed.

Unlike Warren last night, Sanders didn’t draw as sharp of a contrast between himself and moderate rivals like South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden, the latter of whom will make his own pitch to UNITE HERE workers tomorrow. (However, Sanders’ campaign is now running this Instagram ad calling Buttigieg out by name.) Still, he drew his own subtle contrast with the centrist candidates that he must hope will resonate in the days ahead: “Under our administration, you will have an administration that stands with working people, not the powerful [few].”

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