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Why Nevada’s powerful Culinary Union has issues with Bernie Sanders

The influential group still has concerns about Medicare-for-all.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters after greeting people outside a polling station in Manchester, New Hampshire, on February 11, 2020.
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Before the New Hampshire Democratic primary results had even finished coming in on Tuesday, Nevada’s Culinary Union took aim at Sen. Bernie Sanders. The group, which is hugely influential in the state’s upcoming caucuses, singled out Sanders as the only candidate who would get rid of union health care plans in the near term.

It’s a message that went out in a physical flyer, as well as via emails and texts, to the organization’s 60,000 Nevada members, all of whom are covered under the union health care plan. The union’s decision to release the flyer the night of the New Hampshire primary, which Sanders wound up winning, signals its focus on ramping up attacks against the senator ahead of the late-February Nevada caucuses.

As part of its contents, the flyer breaks down the positions of Nevada’s top six Democratic candidates in recent polls, summarizing their platforms around health care, immigration, and jobs. It takes a jab at Sanders, listing him as the only candidate who would “end” the union’s health care, while noting that Warren would replace it after a three-year transition period.

At its core, this messaging highlights concerns some union members have expressed about losing a hard-won health care plan, the product of long and difficult negotiations, if Medicare-for-all is implemented.

The question about Medicare-for-all’s effects on unions is one that Sanders has faced before, and he’s responded by noting that the policy would not only provide robust health care coverage, it would also enable companies to transfer what they save on health care costs toward higher worker wages and other benefits. He’s emphasized, too, that the policy would guarantee reliable health care for all workers, even amid potential strikes and other job changes.

“Sanders’s proposed plan is more generous than the typical private-sector plan, offering no co-pays or deductibles and covering virtually everything,” Tara Golshan previously wrote for Vox. “If it were to pass as proposed, many unions likely would see Medicare-for-all as a better deal.”

Sanders’s Nevada state director Sarah Michelsen echoed this point — and noted that the Culinary Union would be able to continue maintaining the health clinics it’s established exclusively for its workers, under the Senator’s plan. “Bernie has been clear that under Medicare for All, we will guarantee that coverage is as comprehensive or more so than the health care benefits union workers currently receive, and union health clinics, including the Culinary’s health clinic, will remain open to serve their members,” she said in a statement.

While some unions have endorsed Sanders, not all are behind his proposal. The Culinary Union’s opposition to Medicare-for-all is especially significant given how powerful a force the organization is in Nevada elections, with its massive and diverse membership. The group announced Thursday that it does not plan to endorse any candidate. Any negative messaging it releases could potentially depress a candidate’s chances of a caucus win.

“[It] is not just a great turnout machine for workers, but it’s essentially the Hispanic turnout machine,” Jon Ralston, editor of the Nevada Independent, previously told Vox’s Ella Nilsen. “If you can get the Culinary Union to go out for you and go out for you hard, that can be a game changer.”

Previously, the union released more oblique statements challenging both Sanders and Warren’s health care plans. But this new, more pointed attack, suggests the organization is increasingly concerned about Sanders’s recent rise, and worried about whether his vision for universal health care is in its members’ best interests.

The Culinary Union’s flyers highlight a question that’s been posed about unions and Medicare-for-all

Questions about how Medicare-for-all would affect union members have cropped up throughout the primary.

It’s an issue that members of the Culinary Union have raised at every presidential town hall that’s taken place at its headquarters in Nevada, writes the Los Angeles Times’s Matt Pearce:

“We love our Culinary healthcare,” Elodia Muñoz, who went on strike for more than six years at the Frontier Hotel and Casino in the 1990s, told Sanders [in December]. “We want to keep it. I don’t want to change it. Why should I change it?”

The subject is also one that some of Sanders’s opponents — including former Vice President Joe Biden — have tried to harp on, in an attempt to undermine the Vermont senator’s support from workers. Although the Culinary Union has not endorsed anyone, other affiliates of Unite Here — its parent organization — have come out in favor of Sanders, as well as Warren. Unions including the American Federation of Teachers and National Nurses United have also expressed their support of Medicare-for-all.

Sanders has argued that the successful implementation of Medicare-for-all would continue to guarantee strong health care benefits for all workers, while bolstering unions’ bargaining power on other fronts. For instance, workers wouldn’t need to worry about paying for health care during an extended strike, as many United Auto Workers members said they struggled to do during a General Motors strike last fall. Sanders has noted his bill also includes a provision that would enable companies to funnel savings they obtain from Medicare-for-all to workers in the form of either higher wages or other benefits.

With the Nevada caucuses fast approaching on February 22, this conversation — and the debate about how Medicare-for-all would affect union health care — is one that’s sure to continue. The Culinary Union’s flyer simply made this existing tension explicit.

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