How Bernie Won the Las Vegas Strip

I organized workers on the Las Vegas strip for Bernie Sanders. I saw firsthand how his pro-worker platform and message of solidarity won the day, despite anti–Medicare for All scaremongering.

Bellagio hotel workers hold Bernie placards before casting their votes during the Nevada caucuses to nominate a Democratic presidential candidate at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada on February 22, 2020. Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty

“Let’s talk about Culinary health care,” says Mike. Holding a Bernie sign in one hand and a microphone in the other, Mike is standing at the front of a cavernous wood-paneled ballroom at the Park MGM casino and hotel in Las Vegas. Nearly two hundred people, most dressed in work uniforms, are gathered here beneath gleaming chandeliers.

Most of these hotel and casino workers are immigrant women. They’re here to participate in the Nevada Democratic Party caucus. This caucus, a “strip caucus,” is specifically for people who work on the Las Vegas Strip on Saturdays. They’re taking time away from work to be here. Nearly all of them are represented by the Culinary Union Local 226.

Mike is giving a realignment speech, meant to persuade those who aligned with nonviable candidates, in this case Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, to come over to Bernie Sanders. The topic on everyone’s mind is health care, specifically what will happen to the health insurance provided by the union.

“I was a Culinary Union member,” Mike says, “and I still paid for my health care. Under the Bernie Sanders plan, you will have health care from the day you are born until the day you die, for all of your family and all of your friends and any people who come into this country.”

“This is a movement of workers who work hard for their lives, who want to make their lives better and make this country a better place,” Mike concludes. “Please join us if you stand with workers.” It’s rhetoric from another time, before the language of the working class was scrubbed from our political culture. Bernie’s group bursts into proud applause.

Next, a worker from Tom Steyer’s group takes the microphone. “We’ve been fighting for all we have,” she says, “and we don’t want to give up our health insurance.” This is the position of the Culinary Union leadership itself, which has spent weeks agitating its members against Bernie Sanders, alleging that Medicare for All is a threat to their hard-won health care. Culinary Union staffers have been passing out flyers that say Bernie’s plan will “end” Culinary Union health insurance, while other candidates’ plans will “protect” it.

But Mike’s speech appears to have persuaded the Steyer speaker a bit, too. At one point, she sends a mixed message, implying that Medicare for All would be preferable to Culinary Union health insurance, as Mike had argued, but that it simply isn’t winnable, an empty promise.

The speeches conclude, and it’s time to realign. Observers like me watch from the sidelines as two would-be realigners leave the room. Then something remarkable happens: every single realigner who remains joins the Bernie group, which greets them with energetic applause.

Bernie Sanders wins the caucus with more than double the votes and delegates of the other two viable candidates, Joe Biden and Tom Steyer, combined.

Within an hour, we have confirmation that Bernie Sanders has won five out of seven of the special caucuses for workers on the Las Vegas Strip. He ties in the sixth strip caucus, and he is runner-up in the seventh. It’s a landslide.

A landslide was unexpected.

I’d spent days talking to people who work in the casinos and hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, trying to convince them to show up and vote for Bernie. Whenever someone pulled a folded-up union flyer from their pocket, my heart sank. Our odds weren’t clear, and our expectations were low. Our primary ambition was to counter scaremongering about Bernie and Medicare for All effectively enough to make him viable at the strip caucuses. We didn’t allow ourselves to believe we might actually win them.

The workers I spoke to were hotel housekeepers and porters. They were cocktail servers and card dealers. Many were cleaners who worked the casino floors, emptying ash trays, replacing toilet paper rolls in sparkling bathrooms, and wiping down the brightly blinking gaming machines. I spoke to most of them in either broken Spanish (mine) or broken English (theirs).

Almost all of the workers I talked to were members of the Culinary Union, and they took pride in that. The Culinary Union Local 226 is a fighting union with an admirable record of taking on the casino bosses and winning. Yet this fighting union sought to position its members against Bernie Sanders, the most pro-worker candidate in modern American electoral history.

Two factors help explain why. First, Nevada is a right-to-work state, which means that workers aren’t required to pay union dues to receive union benefits. This anti-union policy puts unions on the back foot. If they want to retain dues-paying members, they need to convince people that the union can provide for them. In this context, the Culinary Union is not keen to lose its gold-standard health insurance program, its crown jewel, even if losing it means that its members will have even better insurance, along with their families, friends, and neighbors — and even if losing it means that health benefits themselves will be off the bargaining table, freeing up the union to fight for more ambitious demands.

Second, the Culinary Union has developed a cozy relationship with leaders in the Democratic Party. That isn’t uncommon for big unions. Times are hard enough for American unions — why make it harder by alienating the people in power? In an era of labor movement decline, many unions calculate that the best strategy is to bet on winners, to make and keep friends in high places. Now, even though Bernie Sanders is himself the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, the union leadership is strongly linked to the party establishment — its top leader, for example, boasts of her ties to the centrist think tank Center for American Progress. Those ties aren’t so easily severed.

Thus, the union leadership set out to convince its members that Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All plan was a threat. But while unions have some political influence over their members, they aren’t anybody’s only source of political information. Workers don’t simply exist at work. They have friends, families, neighbors, churches, social media, and news networks in their language of origin. And while Bernie may not be popular with the Culinary Union leadership, he is popular with working-class people of color in Nevada, as he is throughout the country.

In Nevada, “Tío Bernie” ended up getting over 70 percent of the Latino vote. So while I heard echoes of the union leadership’s anti-Bernie line from workers on the Las Vegas Strip — including one person who told me he had heard that Bernie would implement policies that would end the union itself, apparently a game of telephone gone wrong — many people also shared reflexively positive feelings about the Bernie Sanders campaign.

For those who didn’t know what to think, my task was to find out what mattered most to them and make a case for getting on board with Bernie’s program. And for those who were already leaning toward Bernie, my task was to convince them to take time off work and caucus.

According to the process arranged by the union, workers were able to leave their jobs to caucus with no penalty as long as they alerted their supervisor before a specific date. But by the time I spoke to many of them, that date had passed, and they hadn’t given the primary any thought, much less gotten permission to participate.

Because working people generally don’t like tapping into their limited supply of requests for special accommodation from management, it took some convincing to get people to commit to belatedly asking their supervisors if they could leave work for a couple of hours. And the conflicts didn’t stop there. I spoke to one woman, Gebyanesh, whose shift ended just as the caucus was set to begin, which I assumed meant she could make it. But she wouldn’t be caucusing, she told me, because she needed to get home immediately to look after her children.

Gebyanesh is an immigrant from Ethiopia. Like many Ethiopians in Las Vegas, as Bernie volunteers discovered while canvassing taxi drivers last week, she supports Bernie. Could she find anyone to watch her kids for her? She couldn’t on such short notice, she said. I urged her to try, and even offered to arrange childcare at the caucus itself. No dice.

I nearly turned away, but I decided to give it one last shot. I asked if she had heard about the Ethiopian workers who cast the first votes in the Iowa primary, caucusing for Bernie. She hadn’t. I pulled out my phone and showed her a picture. She drew my phone close to her and smiled, visibly moved by the political participation of immigrant workers like her halfway across the country. She fell silent for a while, thinking, and then told me that she would find somebody to watch her kids so she could caucus for Bernie.

Children were a central feature of nearly every one of my conversations. The Latina immigrant housekeepers and casino-floor cleaners I spoke to were mostly in their forties and fifties, with children in high school and college. I heard two things repeatedly. The first was, “My children want me to vote for Bernie” — unsurprising, given both how well Bernie polls with young Latinos and how much immigrant parents lean on their bilingual children to help them navigate many aspects of life in the United States, including politics.

The second thing I heard over and over was, “College is too expensive.” In the year since Bernie’s campaign had begun, I’d lost sight somewhat of Bernie’s tuition-free public college demand, which seemed to be eclipsed by Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. Even the conversation about students seemed focused on student debt relief. But in one conversation after another, the steep price of college tuition emerged as a primary issue for Latina workers on the Las Vegas Strip.

Through my conversations, a rationale for why began to emerge. Many of these women have left behind people they loved and places they knew specifically to secure advantages for their children. As their children grow older, they realize that the wages they’ve been working long shifts for, the savings they’ve scraped together after years or decades of nights and weekends, aren’t sufficient to cover rising college tuition. Their children must now choose between taking on debt or entering the workforce on the lowest rung of the ladder. Many of the women I spoke to felt they’d been cheated. Plenty of them were already familiar with Bernie’s tuition-free college plan, and if they weren’t, they were immediately animated by it.

When it came to health care, I (predictably) heard a lot of chatter about Bernie’s Medicare for All plan harming union health insurance. But in many cases, just a single conversation gave people the opportunity to arrive at a different conclusion.

Judy, an immigrant from Kenya, told me that she personally likes her Culinary Union health insurance, but that she did run into some trouble recently. Her mother isn’t eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, she told me, and is uninsured. When Judy’s mother hurt her leg badly, Judy took her to the hospital. As a result, Judy had to pay for her mother’s care out of her own pocket with money she didn’t have.

Judy had tried to put her mother on her Culinary plan, but she was assured that her insurance was only for her husband and children. So even if you have Culinary health insurance, she concluded, you can still end up in a costly bind. Without much intervention from me, she had talked herself into supporting Bernie and his Medicare for All plan.

Other workers I spoke to needed even less persuasion. The first Bernie caucuser to stand in line at the Park MGM was a baker named Savannah. Tough luck, I joked with her: by arriving punctually, she’d demonstrated that she was responsible, and she was now going to be roped into organizing on the ballroom floor for Bernie. She was happy to do it — and good at it.

Savannah has been a member of the Culinary Union for six years. I asked her whether she would swap her union insurance for Medicare for All. She said her uncle had a lifelong fight with emphysema, her mother has a “weird liver protein,” and her younger sister has a disability that makes it impossible for her to live on her own. None of them are on her Culinary insurance plan. “I would gladly give it up for a much better, more inclusive insurance policy,” she said. She added that she believes if her uncle had been better insured, he would have lived much longer. Instead, the system simply gave up on him, she says, and sent him to a hospice to die.

Amberly, a cocktail server at a casino, had voted early for Bernie. This freed her up to play a key organizing role on the day of the caucus, particularly speaking to people in fluent Spanish. “The wording that the Culinary used was, ‘These candidates besides Bernie are going to protect your health care,’” she said, adding that the union has sent text messages instructing members they should reply “YES” if they want to protect their health care. “But I don’t want to protect my health care. I want that to be my right.”

Amberly explains that she wants health care to be like the First Amendment, something that nobody can take away from you. “That’s the future that I want for my health care. Prior to working at this job, I never had insurance. If I were to call an ambulance, I would be in debt. I was in a car crash, and I was scared to have an ambulance be near me. In the richest country of the whole entire world, it’s insane to me that people have to worry about that. It’s a failed system that doesn’t work for its people. So who is it working for?”

“Who is it working for?” I ask.

“Corporations. The one percent,” she answers. “And Bernie, he’s saying that we’re not gonna take that anymore, and he’s right, we’re not.”

Not every worker who supported Bernie could be convinced to caucus for him. I had not one but two long conversations with a security guard named Romi, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia. I wanted her not only to come caucus for Bernie, but to help me organize others during the caucus. She is passionate and articulate, and her grasp on the political ideas animating Bernie’s campaign is strong.

But Romi was afraid to take time off work. She isn’t a union member. The company that she works for had recently announced they would be administering a physical test in March, which workers would be expected to pass, with vague consequences if they didn’t. Romi is fifty-six years old. She has worked as a security guard on the Las Vegas Strip for a very long time. She expressed worry that she wouldn’t pass the test and might lose her job, and if that happened, she was certain she wouldn’t be hired as a security guard again.

Given her job insecurity, Romi didn’t want to risk getting black marks on her record by asking whether she could take a break to come vote for Bernie. On the day of the caucus, as the caucusers filed in, I thought of her, a casualty of the soft voter suppression that keeps millions of working people out of the political process.

Later, I texted her to celebrate the news. “You sound surprised,” she wrote back. “You didn’t have doubts did ya?”

But I did have doubts. On the day of the caucus, the behavior of some of the staff of the Culinary Union revealed the extent of their opposition to him. It was evident to me that the staffers at my site didn’t want Bernie volunteers speaking with union members, which made me nervous.

For example, some of the housekeepers in line for registration asked for Bernie pins — specifically the ones with the pajarito, the iconic Bernie bird. As they posed for a photo with their pins, the staffer pushed into the middle of the shot, obstructing it. On other occasions, the staffer physically steered workers away from Bernie volunteers and made a concerted effort to speak to everyone we’d spoken to directly afterward. At one point, she asked Bernie volunteers if we would post up in remote areas of the hotel in order to be “helpful,” seeking perhaps to divert our attention from our task. We declined.

In light of her hostility to our efforts, it occurred to me that maybe it was foolish to believe we’d made any real headway over the time we’d been organizing. Anti-Bernie union staffers had probably out-organized us dramatically. I braced for defeat.

In the ballroom, campaign volunteers and press were confined to a small space in the far corner, farther than shouting distance from the caucusers. In the area assigned to Bernie, a small contingent had gathered — too small, I thought. People were scattered all over the room. Then our precinct captain, Susanna, an enthusiastic and dependable pro-Bernie massage therapist at a hotel on the Strip, began to make the rounds, spreading the message that people who planned to caucus for Bernie ought to migrate to the Bernie section.

As Susanna went from group to group, I watched in awe as they all streamed toward the Bernie signs propped against the wood paneling. My eyes welled up with tears as I realized in an instant that we’d won.

It wasn’t just Bernie who had won. Medicare for All and its underlying principles of universal social rights and mutual care had won. The idea that education should be free, that the future should belong to the children of the working class, had won.

Forgive the melodrama, but in that moment, it felt to me that the dream of equality and the practice of solidarity had won, and had won big. As people assembled in our corner, with their Bernie pins on their work uniforms, I felt that I was watching the formation of a self-aware and self-reliant working class, one with the potential to transform our society beyond recognition.