Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2019

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Culinary Union can’t muscle win

Poor showing blamed on late endorsement


Sam Morris

Clinton supporters Joann Benton, left, and Milagros Valdes shout down Obama supporters at Paris Las Vegas. Clinton won the caucuses at seven of the nine sites on the Strip that had been set up so workers, many of them Culinary Union members, would be able to caucus.

Before dawn, the Culinary Union’s army of organizers gathered in the large second-story hall of its Las Vegas headquarters. Members lined up for coffee and doughnuts, a kind of last meal before making the final push for the union’s endorsed candidate, Sen. Barack Obama.

Their organizing packets contained a flier that read: “Culinary Members Are Sticking Together! Culinary Members’ Voices Will Be Heard!”

The members were heard -- but not in the way the union’s leadership had hoped.

Sen. Hillary Clinton won seven of the nine at-large caucus sites on the Strip, sites her husband had derided as giving disproportionate influence to the 60,000-strong union. She won Nevada by 6 percentage points.

In short, the Culinary didn’t deliver.

“I’m not going to make excuses,” said Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor. “You have to give credit to the Clinton campaign. She won.”

The ramifications will be felt for some time, as the union now faces a divided membership and perceptions of lost clout after months of carefully cultivating its image as Nevada’s political kingmaker. (Another line from the flier boasted, “Culinary Members Will Elect Barack Obama!”)

To be sure, the union is still fresh off bargaining victories, and has the upper hand as it now negotiates a new contract with the troubled owners of the Tropicana. The union will still be a powerful player, but the loss is real.

Union officials are doing a good deal of soul-searching, analyzing what led to a fairly calamitous result.

The frustrations were obvious when Kevin Kline, the Culinary’s staff director, barred a Sun reporter and photographer from what was billed earlier in the day as a union victory party, an event to which the Sun had been invited. “We just need a few hours to get our heads around this,” he said.

First and foremost, Clinton’s overwhelming victory on the Strip demonstrates the Culinary’s endorsement did not reflect the wishes of the union’s rank and file. And Culinary members said as much to Sun reporters who attended each of the nine caucus sites.

Clinton dominated Obama among Hispanics, winning by a 2-1 margin, according to exit polls.

With such a large Hispanic population in the union predisposed to go for Clinton, the Culinary was commencing well behind the starting gates.

On a recent swing through a Hispanic neighborhood, organizer Maria Gomez, accompanied by Culinary President Geoconda Arguello Kline, took two hours to visit three members’ homes. One meeting took an hour.

The low turnout at some sites and the predominance of nonunion or management figures would also seem to suggest that the rank and file weren’t fully energized.

The public signs of fracture were subtle but significant in the past few weeks. About 25 members picketed the union’s headquarters the day the Culinary endorsed Obama, ostensibly to protest the loss of banquet jobs at the Rio and Paris Las Vegas. Many held Clinton signs though, and some members expressed frustration over the union’s tortured endorsement process.

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Bally's cook Ray Wadsworth criticizes Clinton supporters at the Paris Las Vegas at large caucus site Saturday, Jan. 19, 2008.

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Carla Lovely Brown attends a caucus day rally at the Culinary Union headquarters in Las Vegas early Saturday morning. By the end of the day, frustration and disappointment had gripped union leaders.

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Culinary members clap and cheer during a caucus day rally and informational meeting at the Culinary Union Local 226 headquarters in Las Vegas early in the morning Saturday, January 19, 2008.

Audio Clip

  • D. Taylor addresses the Culinary Union

Audio Clip

  • Toni Mitchell on the Culinary's Endorsement

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  • Robert Ragan on the Culinary Union's support

“How come it took the union three or four months to endorse Obama?” said Robert Divecchio, a Clinton supporter.

The question was a frequent one, as Culinary organizers such as Augie Salinas knocked on members’ doors for nearly eight weeks leading up to Saturday’s caucus. In the absence of a candidate, organizers were pushing solidarity. Members wanted a candidate. And most on Salinas’ route wanted Clinton, he said.

The delay is what Taylor regrets most.

“We had given members full access to all those candidates for months and months and we had no endorsement,” Taylor said. “The ability to move the knowledge of Sen. Obama through our membership was challenged due to the time element.”

Although the union will not comment on the process it used to arrive at the endorsement, it was clear there was tension between the Culinary local and international parent Unite Here. The Culinary had planned to announce its decision after the Iowa caucuses, but then postponed it until after the New Hampshire primary, leaving the union just 10 days to educate members about Obama.

“It wasn’t mine to make,” Taylor said of the endorsement. “It was done by the international union.”

The small window led the Culinary’s army of organizers to push Obama hard, and the pushy approach riled some members, particularly those who had already settled on Clinton. The Clinton campaign had raised the contention last week that its supporters within the Culinary ranks had been intimidated by union activists to support Obama. No Clinton supporters within the union, however, complained to Sun reporters Saturday of any intimidation.

But the stresses of a divided union membership carried into caucus rooms Saturday, as Clinton supporters openly taunted Obama supporters, waving noisemakers in the air at one site.

“I believe they came out too late” for Obama, said Toni Mitchell, a Culinary worker at New York-New York. “If they had come out sooner they could have been more tactful with the people and they probably would have gotten some more support.”

And then there was the Bill Clinton factor. He toured “back of the house” areas at several Strip properties last week, spending two solid hours at one casino shaking hands with Culinary members on his wife’s behalf.

At the Mirage site on Saturday, Bill Clinton seemed to allege the Culinary Union was intimidating voters, saying it was un-American. “This is America. Everybody is supposed to be able to vote,” he said. Clinton won the site by 25.

The influence was undeniable.

“It’s not too often that you have the former president of the United States greet you as you go into your caucus or have Chelsea Clinton leaflet you,” Taylor said. “It was a full onslaught of Clinton and I congratulate her. She won.”

The political powerbrokers in Nevada will take note, but the union remains vital.

“They’ve taken a serious hit,” a Democratic source said. “But I suspect they’ll find a race they’ll have an effect on and stomp on somebody. They have to. They’ve lost stature not only in the political community, also with their members. They need to do something.”

Nevertheless, given Obama’s standing in the polls a month ago, Taylor called the union’s work “remarkable.” The Culinary helped the campaign close a 20-point gap to about 5 points, he said.

As to whether the union’s political clout had diminished as a result of the loss, Taylor simply said, “Time will tell.”

Besides, his attention is now elsewhere: “We’ve got a big contract fight at the Tropicana.”

Sun reporters J. Patrick Coolican, Mike Trask, Brendan Buhler, Rick Velotta, David McGrath Schwartz and Brian Eckhouse contributed to this report.

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