Bernie Sanders resoundingly won the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, taking 47 percent of the vote count and two-thirds of the available delegates in a crowded field. Sanders won five out of the seven caucuses on the Las Vegas Strip, tying the sixth and coming in second at the last. These sites cater primarily to taxi drivers and service workers at the region’s biggest casinos. These victories were especially significant because even after the leadership of Nevada’s influential UNITE HERE Local 226, or the Culinary, repeatedly attacked Sanders, rank-and-file members of the union supported him far more than any other candidate.
The Culinary is perhaps the most powerful political force in Nevada. The union, made up largely of immigrants and people of color, has an extremely admirable history of shop-floor militancy and concrete wins. Its members — housekeepers, casino workers, and service staff on the Las Vegas Strip — have taken on organized crime and some of the world’s richest corporations and won. It has done all this in a historically low-wage sector with high turnover in a state with laws unfavorable to unions. Because of members’ long history of activism and loyalty to the union, the Culinary is widely seen as a power player in Nevada politics. Every candidate in the Democratic primary would have loved the union’s endorsement.
In the end, the Culinary issued no endorsement. Instead, the union’s secretary-treasurer, Geoconda Argüello-Kline, gave a bizarre press conference a few days before the caucuses in which she said the union was “going to endorse our goals. . . . We are not going to endorse a candidate.” While there was officially no endorsement, Argüello-Kline referred to Joe Biden as “our friend” and repeatedly claimed Bernie Sanders supporters were harassing her and other members of the union.
It was not the first time Culinary officials came out against Sanders while not quite coming out for anyone else. In the lead-up to the caucuses, Culinary leadership conducted an increasingly explicit agitational campaign against Sanders, particularly targeting his proposal to enact Medicare for All. As Gabriel Winant noted in Jacobin, among Culinary officials’ tactics was releasing a flyer to members stating Sanders would “end Culinary Healthcare,” “an obvious attempt to influence the caucus outcome without risking an actual endorsement — and the union’s sterling reputation for making winners.”
Both before and after the results came out on Saturday, rank-and-file members of the Culinary who supported Sanders challenged the leadership’s narrative. Many of these workers made arguments that Medicare for All would provide benefits similar to or better than the Culinary’s health plan for everyone in the country, including members’ family and friends.
Monica Smith, a member of the Culinary for over thirty years, gave a speech in favor of Sanders at the Bellagio Hotel caucus site, arguing:
I love my union and my health care plan, but Bernie doesn’t want to restrict our great health care coverage. He wants to expand it to everyone — and to improve our own health care by eliminating all co-pays. Bernie will make it so that we can maintain great health care even if we lose our jobs — and he’ll ensure that our children will have great health care once they become adults. Don’t our children deserve the right to health care? Don’t all of our neighbors and workers outside of Culinary deserve great health care their whole lives too?
Other Culinary members like Jose Alvarez bristled at the idea that rank-and-file members had no agency apart from the positions of the leaders. “I’m proud to be a member of the union — there’s no problem with that. They have to understand that the union is democratic. They can’t decide for us what we want. That’s what I asked them. Just don’t get involved,” Alvarez told Buzzfeed, referring to the Culinary leadership.
While Bernie has received endorsements from far more unions than any of his competitors, the caucus results show that in some situations, the interests of union leaders are not the same as those of rank-and-file members. Specifically, in this case, Culinary leadership appeared to prioritize a desire not to upset members of the Democratic Party establishment like Joe Biden, or perhaps maintain the existing health care plan for the union and its members — a plan that was won through struggle by the union, but will never be as strong as a robust public health plan and will constantly be under attack by employers. On the other hand, most members prioritized the candidate with the best concrete, material plans to benefit them and people like them: Bernie Sanders.
However hard they fight for members’ rights and benefits on the job, the fact remains that full-time union officials, especially high-level ones deciding on endorsements, have a very different day-to-day life than most of their members. Culinary leaders are more likely to work in offices rather than hot commercial kitchens or chaotic casino floors; they interact more frequently with political elites than casino customers; they are much more likely to have a high degree of agency and independence in their work; when they face off against casino bosses, their own jobs are not directly on the line; their salaries and benefits are better than the vast majority of members they represent.
When it comes to health care in particular, union officials’ interests can diverge from those of members or the working class as a whole in serious ways. Broadly, some union officials see “union-negotiated health plans” as a selling point to attract and retain members. If union members have better benefits than the average member of the working class, they have a strong incentive to stick with the union.
And with union-administered health plans in particular, high-level union officials have the opportunity to dole out jobs and other perks to loyalists, a privilege of office they would lose if all workers in the US had full health coverage. To take just one example, New York City municipal unions alone directly administer more than $1 billion in member benefits annually. That means jobs and perks for those union officials — jobs and perks that they don’t want to see disappear, even if they know that Medicare for All would be best for their own workers and workers everywhere.
None of this means union officials are inherently bad or blameworthy. Being a union organizer is an extraordinarily difficult job, and the necessary skills and dedication should be rewarded. The dedication and organizing skill Culinary members demonstrated are an indication that Culinary staff understand the necessity of empowering members more than many union staff do.
But it does mean that there’s a strong difference between disagreeing with a union’s leadership about a specific political position, and criticizing its members and the union as a whole. The former certainly isn’t the same as being “anti-union.”
The majority of Culinary members who caucused made the choice to back the candidate who would improve the standard of living for the entire working class, rather than give in to baseless fears that helping others would cause harm to themselves. Other union members around the country can, too.