Last night, the state’s most prominent union kicked off its series of town halls with the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. And last night, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) was the first candidate to meet with Culinary Union members at their Downtown Las Vegas union hall.
As several of the other Democratic candidates increasingly argue with each other over what they’re doing, how it can be done, and why they’re doing it, Harris reassured the audience, “It’s not in our nature for us to ask permission for what we believe is possible. We make it possible!”
Why are they going to the Culinary Union?
The Culinary Union has played an integral role in not just the growth of Nevada’s labor movement, but also the development of Nevada’s overall economy. And just in the last three years, the Culinary Union has been at the center of several major stories.
Almost exactly two years ago workers at Green Valley Ranch Casino Resort voted to join Culinary, and the union has since won votes at additional Red Rock Resorts/Station Casinos properties, such as Fiesta Rancho and Fiesta Henderson, even as Red Rock/Station executives continue to fight against union recognition. At the same time, Culinary has also led the fight against MGM Resorts’ efforts to lay off workers for the sake of “financial engineering”, and against other gaming companies’ efforts to hide cases of workplace harassment and abuse. And when it comes to federal and state legislation, Culinary has led the charge on everything from prescription drug price transparency and overall health care reform to paid sick leave and immigrant civil rights.
And ever since the Culinary Union and parent union UNITE HERE placed their bets on then presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008, other candidates have come to Culinary to seek their blessing and benefit from their legendary “GOTV machine”. And now that a 2020 presidential endorsement may be on the line, Kamala Harris was first in line to make her case to union members.
“Justice is on the ballot in 2020.”
– Kamala Harris
After a boisterous and ebullient introduction from UNITE HERE International President D. Taylor and Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline, Kamala Harris took the stage. Echoing the argument that State Senator Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) made for Harris in Mesquite on Sunday, Harris exclaimed, “Justice is on the ballot in 2020.”
Then, Harris echoed the theme of last night’s town hall (“One Job Should Be Enough”) as she proclaimed, “In the America I believe in, no one should have to work more than one job to put food on the family table and a roof over their heads.”
Thus far on the 2020 campaign trail, fellow U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) have staked their respective claims as the authentic, visceral progressive populists who are unafraid to take on the billionaires and tear down the status quo. At Culinary last night, Harris seemed to win over the crowd with her own take on fighting for social and economic justice. “We know how to fight. When we fight, we win!,” Harris exclaimed. She continued, “To win this fight, we need to have a vision of the future, a vision of what’s possible and what can be.”
“The true measure of strength isn’t based on who you beat down. It’s based on who you lift up.”
– Kamala Harris
After Kamala Harris had the opportunity to try out a new and improved version of her stump speech with the crowd, it was time for questions. First up was Misha Robson, a UNITE HERE Local 362 member from Orlando, Florida, who asked, “How can Democrats convince workers they’re tough […] and fighting for our issues?”
Harris responded, “The true measure of strength isn’t based on who you beat down. It’s based on who you lift up.” She continued, “The fight is about lifting people up. Don’t be confused when a small man named Donald Trump waves around what he thinks is his power, when he’s done nothing to help working people.”
Throughout the night, Harris really seemed to get the bulk of the audience to their feet and into her corner. That sentiment continued after the program, and UNITE HERE Local 49 (Sacramento, California) member Joall Lincoln shone some light for us on why Harris connected with the audience (and why the visiting UNITE HERE members were so excited to see a presidential candidate up close and personal when we’ve come to expect these kinds of intimate events here in Nevada).
“Everyone’s saying what I want to hear, but I need the field to [winnow] down.”
– Mario Sandoval, Culinary Union member
Inevitably, the conversation came closer to home when Culinary Union member and Palace Station worker Casiano Corpus asked Kamala Harris about their ongoing struggle with Red Rock Resorts/Station Casinos and the company’s latest lobbying blitz to cajole Congress to pass legislation to metastasize the 2017 tax law and allow the company a tax break for its recent $690 Palms Casino Resort renovation project. Harris responded, “I’ve called [CEO Frank and Lorenzo] Fertitta. I’ve weighed in on that. What Station Casinos is doing is wrong.”
After the program, I spoke with Mario Sandoval, a 35-year-long Binion’s worker who took part in the famous Binion’s Horseshoe Strike of 1990. He expressed his frustration over Red Rock/Station’s refusal to recognize the Culinary Union at all , as well as over the state’s handling of the many #MeToo scandals up and down the Las Vegas Strip. However, he also praised Harris for her answers at his union’s town hall.
In addition, Mario Sandoval also had kind words for South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and won’t yet commit to caucus for one specific Democrat. So what else does he need to know before he can decide? According to Sandoval, “Everyone’s saying what I want to hear, but I need the field to [winnow] down.”
“Those people in Washington, D.C., don’t have any cojones!”
– Kamala Harris
During the town hall, Mario Sandoval got to ask his own question about Harris’ health care agenda. In answering his questions, she credited UNITE HERE/Culinary with her evolution on “Medicare for All”, from co-sponsoring the very bill Sanders and Warren are now defending from Republicans’ and centrist Democrats’ attacks to proposing her own “Traditional Medicare or Medicare Advantage for All” hybrid plan. Yet when Sandoval asked about repeal of the oft-delayed “Cadillac Tax” on the most generous health insurance plans, Harris sidestepped that matter.
But when D. Taylor himself asked the final question on prescription drug prices, Harris didn’t hold back: “Those people in Washington, D.C., don’t have any cojones!” Moments earlier, she vented, “The pharmaceutical companies are making so much money. There are seniors who are making the decision of whether to fill the refrigerator or take their pills.” And interestingly enough, she offered support for Buttigieg’s proposal to pull patents from drug companies that refuse to negotiate lower prices.
Yet while Buttigieg has increasingly defined his own campaign as a contrast to the “impossible” promises of Warren’s “big, structural change” and Sanders’ “political revolution”, Harris framed her campaign as redefining what’s possible. “When we fight for what we believe is possible, even when we have never seen it before, we can make it happen,” Harris declared. And she soon concluded, “It’s not in our nature for us to ask permission for what we believe is possible. We make it possible!”