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Debate In Nevada Highlights Labor Union Opposition to Medicare For All

Photo of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 members at a podium.
Culinary Workers Union Local 226
Members from the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020 in Las Vegas.

Last night, six Democratic presidential candidates debated in Nevada, where health care reform became a contentious issue. KUNR's News Director Michelle Billman checked in with Health Reporter Anh Gray for the details.

Billman: In elections, support from unions is especially important for Democratic candidates, since they tend to champion the rights of the working in the middle class. Can you break down for us what's going on with Nevada's Culinary Union? 

Gray: In Nevada, the Culinary Union is the largest labor union in the state. They are 60,000 members strong and consist of hotel and casino hospitality workers. Collectively, they have a lot of influence and sway on elections in Nevada. At this point, they are not endorsing any candidate ahead of the Nevada caucus, but they did recently put together flyers that they distributed to their members, and it really focused on the health care issue.

The information the union distributed highlighted the two main camps. In the first camp, you have Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who are proponents of a "Medicare for All" program. And the more moderate camp, really their focus is on expanding existing federal plans, like the Affordable Care Act. [Former] Vice President Joe Biden, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and billionaire Tom Steyer — who's on the ballot in Nevada — are viewed as having more moderate health care proposals. In general, their plan proposes to extend existing federal programs. They have a public option, meaning that voters can have an option to keep their current existing insurance plan, or opt in to a government run one.

Billman: Why is health care such a big issue for the Culinary Union?

Gray: The Culinary Union already provides their own insurance and even has their own health facility in Las Vegas. [The union’s] health benefits cover their 60,000 members, and their family members, and that accounts for more than 130,000 Nevadans. Union leaders see sweeping reform, like Medicare for All proposals, as essentially a threat to ending their choice for health care. [The union] view their benefits as really hard fought [for] benefits that they provide to their members.

“We have fought for health care with picket lines, with civil disobedience arrests and strikes," said Bethany Khan, the spokesperson for the Culinary Union. "Our union believes that everyone has the right to good health care, and we want to retain our choice and keeping the health care that is worker created.”

Billman: So there's a lot of tension here, between the Culinary Union and the Sanders campaign. It was palpable during the debate this week. Explain why Sanders seemed to receive most of the heat on this issue, and what about the other candidates?

Gray: Well, I think there's a couple of reasons for that. After the first two primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders seems to be the current front-runner. And in some polls, he seems to have a strong lead in Nevada. I think Sanders took the brunt of much of the health care debate because the other candidates were trying to reverse his momentum. In particular though, universal health care, in this case, Sanders’ Medicare for All, is a hallmark [of his] campaign that he's been running on.

And in this debate, which took place in Las Vegas, the Culinary Union is viewed as a key, important voting bloc that could swing the election. The fact that [the union] made a concerted effort to point out that Sanders' plan would quote unquote end culinary health care, gave other candidates ammunition to go after him. I also want to point out that Warren is also a proponent for a Medicare for All. In her plan, she has a three-year transition period as part of her proposal.

Billman: During the debate, one of the moderators really pressed Sanders on his position on health care reform.

Gray: It was an interesting point in the debate. He seemed to respond to some of the concerns that the union had about his Medicare for All program.

"So let me be very clear to my good friends in the Culinary Workers Union, a great union. I will never sign a bill that will reduce the health care benefits they have," said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. "We will only expand it for them, for every union in America, and for the working class of this country.”

And when I spoke with Bethany Khan from the Culinary Union, she said they are not planning to endorse a candidate in the Nevada caucus, but they plan to stand united in the general election.

“It's less about another policy or particular policies," said Khan. "Our goal is to win health care for all, and the best way we can do that as to unite to defeat Trump in November on Election Day.”

Anh is a contributing editor for the KUNR news team and has been with the station since 2014. She is an alumna of the Boston University School of Public Health and Teachers College, Columbia University.
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