This past weekend, SEIU Local 1107 held its “Unions for All” Summit at the Sahara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. Considering that we have less than a month left until the Nevada Democratic Caucus, the presidential candidates are scrambling to shore up union workers’ support. But also considering that this is the penultimate weekend before the Iowa Democratic Caucus, and that three of the candidates slated to appear must stay in D.C. for the Senate impeachment trial six days a week, only one viable candidate ultimately attended in person while others had to phone it in.
Click here for Part 2, where you’ll find union workers’ and leaders’ perspectives. Below, I’ll catch you up to speed on what the presidential campaigns said and did over the weekend.
So why does this matter?
SEIU Local 1107 represents health care workers and public servants across Nevada, including multiple Clark County public agencies, UMC (or University Medical Center in Las Vegas), St. Rose Dominican Hospitals, Sunrise hospitals, and the Valley Health hospitals. For over a decade, SEIU has often been at the forefront in the fights to raise the minimum wage (both state and federal), pass and defend the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare), expand collective bargaining and union organizing rights to more Nevada workers, and advance additional progressive causes.
In 2008, SEIU was one of several unions to endorse then candidate Barack Obama for president and help propel his campaign. In 2020, the Democratic presidential candidates are hoping SEIU will do the same for them. But as of now, and like many other unions here in Nevada and across the country, SEIU is taking its time to vet the candidates and see who actually mean what they say.
For the most part, all the “Final Four” frontrunners and most of the remaining contenders have embraced workers’ rights measures like a $15 national minimum wage, executive action to make it easier for workers to form unions, non-discrimination legislation to guarantee equal rights for women workers, workers of color, immigrant workers, and LGBTQ+ workers, and trade policies that respect workers’ rights domestically and abroad.
In their March 2019 officer election, SEIU 1107 members elected 20 women (out of 24 positions) and a record high number of workers of color into their officer leadership. This right here says a lot about SEIU’s demographics, and this is a key data point that debunks the common tropes and stereotypes about unions mostly accommodating certain white men. SEIU 1107 has also made progress in securing a higher minimum wage and expanding union organizing rights here in Nevada (review our coverage of the 80th Session of the Nevada Legislature for more details), and they managed to get (former and present) presidential candidates like U.S. Senators Kamala Harris (D-California) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and several of the current frontrunners to commit to advance their workers’ rights nationwide.
“We need to make sure we win back the White House, that we beat Donald Trump. It all comes down to this: Who can beat Donald Trump? I believe Joe Biden can!”
– Hilda Solis, speaking in support of Joe Biden
Throughout the weekend, I noticed the typical philosophical divide amongst the campaigns that’s persisted throughout this cycle. As usual, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) promised broad, sweeping change, while former Vice President Joe Biden offered an assortment of more measured changes and former South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg opted for more “optics” heavy imagery of generational change.
While speaking for Biden, former U.S. Labor Secretary and current Los Angeles County (California) Supervisor Hilda Solis seemed to acknowledge activists’ desire for more radical change, but she also argued that Biden’s smaller practical steps will get them on the path to achieve more. As she put it, “I know Joe Biden can sustain the change so that we can go further. […] I know there’s thirst for new change. I know that means putting new people in [the National Labor Relations Board].”
And like the rest of the Biden campaign, Solis told union members to focus on that one “e word” that always pops up on cable TV and in internet pundit circles: “We need to make sure we win back the White House, that we beat Donald Trump. It all comes down to this: Who can beat Donald Trump? I believe Joe Biden can!”
“Which side are you on? I know, and you know, that Bernie always stands on the side of workers.”
– Dr. Jane O’Meara Sanders, speaking in support of Bernie Sanders
On one hand, Dr. Jane O’Meara Sanders agreed with Solis in saying, “At this point in history, there is nothing more important than defeating the most corrupt and dangerous president we’ve ever had.” But on the other hand, she pointed to the growing success of the Fight for 15 movement and other social justice movements as evidence that the only real way to win big is to think big and do big.
According to Jane Sanders, “They did not accept no for an answer. They organized a movement. They said they would not settle for $8 or $9 per hour. They would not agree to poverty wages for people who work 40 or more hours per week.”
Bernie Sanders himself soon called into the summit to answer members’ questions. As per usual, he took advantage of users’ questions to tout his “Medicare for All” plan, his Green New Deal plan, and his sweeping Workplace Democracy Act to expand workers’ rights nationwide by ending “at-will employment” practices that favor employers, ending federal allowance of state “Right to Work” laws, ending restrictions on union organizing targeting state and local public servants, and establishing new collective bargaining boards to set sector/industry-wide standards for wages and benefits.
Yet just before Bernie Sanders began answering these questions, Jane Sanders set the stage for not his answers, but for their approach to the home stretch of the campaign with this rhetorical question: “Which side are you on? I know, and you know, that Bernie always stands on the side of workers.”
“She wasn’t there to only hold Republicans accountable. She was there to hold Democrats accountable, too. She didn’t care about the party. She puts people first!”
– Julián Castro, for Elizabeth Warren
Like Bernie and Jane Sanders, Julián Castro made the case for “big, structural change”. But this time, instead of arguing for himself, Castro came to convince SEIU members to caucus for Elizabeth Warren.
As Castro put it, “Here’s what I know: We need a president who’s committed to expand the opportunities for workers.” He soon added, “What makes Senator Warren different is not just that she has a plan to do it, but she has a track record to show that she’s already fighting for it.”
From there, Castro reassured the SEIU crowd that Warren will take extensive executive action and pursue legislation (such as the PRO Act) to defend and expand workers’ right to collectively bargain and organize unions. In addition, he shared a very personal story of when he first met Warren, back in 2014 when then President Barack Obama appointed him as HUD Secretary and she was a freshman Senator.
They met for lunch in the Senate dining room. And as Castro recalled, “Senator Warren didn’t want small talk. She didn’t want to know what I was doing over the weekend. She wanted to know how we were going to hold Wall Street accountable for forcing people out of their homes.” And for anyone in the room who still wondered which side she’s on, Castro declared, “She wasn’t there to only hold Republicans accountable. She was there to hold Democrats accountable, too. She didn’t care about the party. She puts people first!”
“I know that I’m the only person who showed up here. That actually doesn’t shock me. I take Nevada really seriously.”
– Tom Steyer
The next day, SEIU 1107 members got to experience something different: One of the candidates actually showed up in person. As I’ve been noting in our Caucus Power Rankings, billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer has been blanketing the entire state with ads, field offices, and organizers on the ground. But unlike the other Democratic billionaire who’s mostly relying on paid ads to cause a scene on Super Tuesday, Steyer made a critical point by showing up to the “Unions for All” Summit and campaign throughout Nevada while some of his rivals literally phoned it in.
As Steyer assessed it himself while speaking with reporters today, “I know that I’m the only person who showed up here. That actually doesn’t shock me. I take Nevada really seriously.”
And when I asked whether he’s trying to make a point to the rest of the Democratic Party on the need to toss out their preconceived notions of a certain “e word”, Steyer replied, “The way we’re going to win is by inspiring people to be involved, [inspiring those] who were previously uninvolved. It’s a huge portion of the electorate, they’re overwhelmingly likely to vote Democratic [if they vote at all], and they’re predominantly young and voters of color.”
“There has been a 40 year war on working people. We have to turn it around! We have to win, and then [we have to] change the rules.”
– Tom Steyer
Over the course of the 2020 campaign, Warren has become famous for her “signature selfie lines” while Sanders has maintained his reputation of drawing “yuuuuge!” crowds, and both have made their respective marks on the party by advocating bolder progressive platforms. But this past weekend, it was Tom Steyer who drew the big applause for calling out right-wing efforts to roll back workers’ rights, health care progress, environmental protections, and racial justice.
And in one of his biggest applause lines, Steyer declared, “There has been a 40 year war on working people. We have to turn it around! We have to win, and then [we have to] change the rules.”
By contrast, when Pete Buttigieg live-streamed into the summit moments later, he deployed some of his best lines from his famed “values talks”, but they didn’t seem to resonate as strongly. Even as Buttigieg promised, “When I’m president, I won’t measure economic growth by the Dow Jones, or even by the GDP. The #1 measure of economic health in my administration will be how much income grows for the 99%,” it was more polite nodding than the thunderous applause that Steyer enjoyed in-person. (Later in the day, venture capitalist Andrew Yang also appeared via livestream.)
But overall, how did SEIU 1107 workers greet these supportive words from the candidates (and/or their surrogates)? Well, it’s complicated. And in Part 2, we’ll hear more from them on what they’re experiencing and whether they think the candidates truly get it.