Line cooks, food runners, servers, and dishwashers are not often thought of as politically powerful. They struggle with long hours, low pay, and job insecurity, and as shift workers, they’re among the least likely constituents to take time away from work to vote. Retiring from a restaurant job can be equally brutal, if not impossible, even for chefs with celebrated careers. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the U.S. representative and second most famous Democratic Socialist in America, was radicalized while working as a bartender and surviving on tips.
But in Nevada, one of the most powerful organizations in politics is the Culinary Workers Union, which represents hospitality workers across the state. It is renowned for its ability to organize its 60,000 members as a potent force — and to sway elections. Candidates are aggressively courting the union’s support in the 2020 Nevada Democractic Caucus, which takes place February 22, and where early voting is underway.
The union’s strength is built on its success at transforming economically precarious food service jobs into foundations of stable middle-class life. It is known for its aggressive organizing tactics and lengthy strikes, and the results speak for themselves. Union wages in Nevada are on average higher than those at non-union companies, and a union-sponsored culinary academy allows workers in lower-paid positions to train for higher-paid ones: A pot washer can train to be a pantry cook, and that pantry cook to become a pastry chef. Feminist victories range from banning the requirement that cocktail waitresses wear heels to panic buttons for hotel room attendants. Workers have a pension fund, and there are programs to help members gain citizenship or purchase a first home. Most vital, for many members — and at the core of a highly publicized dispute with supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in recent weeks — is the robust health insurance offered by the union.
The Culinary Workers Union is Local 226 of the national union Unite Here (stylized as UNITE HERE), and it represents hotel workers such as guest room attendants, laundry workers, and porters, as well as the many food workers spread across hotels and casinos. It bills itself as Nevada’s largest immigrant organization, with members from 178 countries who speak over 40 languages; many of its leaders are women of color, and half of the membership is Latinx. A key part of the union’s structure is intensive organizing among rank-and-file workers, which includes training to become field operatives during political campaigns, and allows workers to take months away from their jobs to canvass.
The union’s endorsement is a coveted prize during Democratic primaries, and not just because it might directly secure workers’ votes; if the union stands behind a candidate, its members will canvass on the candidate’s behalf, a boon in an early caucus state that receives a fraction of the attention (or resources) as Iowa and New Hampshire. During the contentious 2008 primary, Culinary 226 famously endorsed Barack Obama, and former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid — a Nevada political institution unto himself — partly credits the union with securing his 2010 Senate victory. While it did not endorse anyone in the 2016 primary, union get-out-the-vote efforts later helped deliver Nevada (narrowly) for Hillary Clinton. In 2020, the crowded primary field of candidates have courted union support in a wild variety of ways, from speaking at union town halls to touring the union’s health care facility.
The third primary contest in the nation, Nevada has in the past suffered from low caucus turnout (despite Harry Reid’s contention that the racially diverse state is a better testing ground for Democratic campaigns than the states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which are about 90 percent white). In the wake of the 2016 primary battle between Clinton and Sanders, where procedural issues flared into open conflict, a slew of changes were implemented to make primaries and caucuses more accessible, most notably early voting; many early sites are stationed in community centers for underrepresented voters, such as a Latinx supermarket, an Ethiopian restaurant, and the Culinary Workers Union hall. There are also early voting centers attached to union employee dining rooms, including one open 24 hours.
During early voting last weekend, I spoke with 21 culinary union members waiting in line to vote. Most were room attendants, cooks, and servers. For all of candidates’ frantic courting of the union — from citing their Spanish name in fourth grade to awkwardly pointing out that America expects women to clean up messes — there was little campaigning or flyering outside of the hall. The big exception was Tom Steyer, who brought in a taco truck and a cookie truck to give out food for free on the sidewalk.
The people who come out for early voting on a Saturday morning tend to be more politically engaged than the average voter, or even the average union member. Which is saying something for the Culinary Workers Union: With strong rank-and-file organizing, many members are recruited to serve as leaders in some capacity, meaning that a significant chunk of the union is unusually politically engaged. A number of the members I spoke with had been part of the union’s leadership contingent in some way, as shop stewards and political organizers; more than one had met Joe Biden while campaigning for Obama in 2008 or 2012. This group tended to support Biden or Steyer, who has a history in Nevada politics, though plenty were still undecided about their top choice. (Early voting for the caucus uses ranked-choice voting.)
But well over half of the people I spoke to were everyday members, often with long histories at union jobs. This was especially true of the cooks, many of whom had worked at the same casino for a decade or more; two had been in the union since the 1970s. They were intensely loyal to it, but their political opinions were based as much on their personal experiences as the union’s official positions. Several supported Sanders, others supported Biden or Pete Buttigieg, and many were still undecided.
Every person I spoke with mentioned health care, which had become a lightning rod over the previous few weeks. The union’s health benefits are some of the best in Nevada, offering premium free health care if workers meet a certain hourly threshold; the Culinary Health Fund operates its own pharmacy and health center to control costs. As national media attention shifted from New Hampshire to Nevada in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s win, the union released a flyer breaking down each major candidate’s positions that characterized Sanders’s Medicare for All position as “End Culinary Healthcare,” while suggesting other candidates would protect that health care, or, in Warren’s case, offer a gentler transition. In an earlier town hall with the union, Sanders had said his Medicare for All proposal would require that the thousands of dollars companies currently pay into each worker’s union health care would instead go into workers’ pockets. Union secretary-treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline rejects this. “You say the company is going to give you this and promise that, and in my experience in 30 years, I don’t see it as that easy. We cannot live on promises. We support 100 percent [government health care], but don’t take away ours with the expectation of negotiating with the company.”
Sanders is currently leading most polls in Nevada, and the flyer was widely considered an attack on his campaign. Leftist publications blasted the union’s leadership for undercutting Sanders’s worker-focused campaign, while Argüello-Kline and union PR rep Bethany Khan alleged that Sanders supporters had harassed them with tweets, phone calls, and doxxing.
In the end, the union declined to endorse any candidate in the primary. Instead of helping elect a chosen champion, the union is phone-banking to encourage members to vote, and its only guidance is a flyer sent to members that the leadership insists is “informative.” For an organization with enough resources to canvass the entire state, what’s notable beneath the storm of controversy is that the union opted not to flex its power and encouraged members to decide for themselves.
Outside the union hall on Saturday, many voters spoke about wanting to protect their health care for themselves and their families — and also about wanting coverage for people in their lives who were not lucky enough to be in the union. One woman held the union’s scorecard and had highlighted every candidate who would “Proteger el seguro de salud de la Culinaria,” or “Protect Culinary health care.” Several Biden supporters cited safeguarding their health care as a reason to support him, but just as many cited his decades of experience or simply the fact that they found him likeable. Sanders supporters spoke about wanting health care for everyone. Especially without a union endorsement, member opinions and candidate choices were varied.
While waiting to vote outside the union hall, on Saturday, February 15, Shirley Funchess, a 58-year-old pantry cook at Caesars Palace, said the issues she cared about the most were health care and wages. Parent union Unite Here (formed by the merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employee Union in 2004, so it is an actual acronym) is demonstrating across the country using the slogan “One job should be enough,” and that message resonated as widely with Culinary members as concerns over health care. Funchess had been with the union since she was 17, and praised the job security she’d found there. Once, she considered moving to New Orleans, but at the non-union Harrah’s there, pay was $13 an hour with no health insurance; doing the same job in Las Vegas, Funchess makes almost twice that with union benefits. She was undecided between Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg as her first choice.
Tony Hill, a 56-year-old food server, had been in the restaurant industry “since Reagan was president,” and with the union for the past seven years. He said there were pluses and minuses, but without a union, there was no protection against predatory bosses. When he worked at a non-union casino, the company pressured him to push rewards cards on clients; if servers didn’t sell enough, they were summoned to 5 a.m. seminars to teach them to sell better. Unionized shops don’t allow this. “The union sets standards — this is in our contract, we can’t do this — versus ‘You’re working for us and you do what we want,’” Hill said. He described union jobs as tough to get, and with health insurance, he estimated he effectively got a $10,000 raise by moving to a union position. “The union has wonderful [health care], but when there’s an issue, it’s a big problem,” Hill said. A prescription he needed had been caught in a bureaucratic snarl for a month. Hill was voting for Sanders because he supported the candidate’s call to eliminate insurance companies entirely, and admired his integrity.
Elias Sanchez, a union member and Mirage employee, said the union had made all the difference in his working life, because, “I want respect.” This sense of pride in the union, and the security its wages and protections engendered, was evident in every member I spoke to, even those with wildly different political positions or views of the union. A bellman at the MGM Grand, who noticed me holding something with the union logo on it, declared, “That’s my union!” When I asked who he was supporting, he said he’d be voting for President Donald Trump. The Lyft driver who took me to the union hall was, by coincidence, a former member. He felt the union had failed him when he was fired from a cook position after 20 years, and the next union jobs he got required night-time hours that he found too challenging to work, so he quit. But he also spoke about how the union helped him before that incident, and he had union health insurance through his wife, who was still a member.
Besides health care and wages, members brought up one other topic: Donald Trump. In 2020, Argüello-Kline says the union’s number-one priority is to defeat Trump; there’s little risk of the union threatening to sit out the election, as it did in 2012 before reversing course. Steven Hicks, a cook who voted for Sanders, called Trump “the worst president we’ve ever had in my lifetime.” Gina Kyle, a pantry cook who voted for Biden, said she wanted to elect someone “to clean up what Trump has done.” Jon Vera, a fiery beverage porter and former shop steward who voted for Steyer, said, “I have a history with this union. I remember we used to picket Trump Tower.” The union won its battle to unionize the Trump International Hotel in 2016.
The early voting period for the Nevada caucus ended Monday with massive turnout. Now, all eyes will be on caucus day, Saturday, February 22. Candidates are still making their pitch to Culinary Workers Union members. On Wednesday, several candidates joined the picket line at the union’s other major organizing priority, an ongoing push to get a contract at anti-union Station Casinos, and at the debate on Wednesday night, Buttigieg invoked Sanders’s spat with the union’s leadership, which drew an audible reaction from the audience, and Sanders disavowed the online rancor, and characterized his proposal as one that would expand benefits unions have won. But after Nevada, the candidates will be on to the next state, while the union’s role in the 2020 election will shift. When the Democratic Party anoints a candidate for the general election, the Culinary Workers Union’s cooks, servers, and bartenders could be poised to fan out across their home state and the most competitive parts of the country, a remarkable force of food workers who could help swing an election, again.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.
Isaac Brekken is a photographer based in Las Vegas.