Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Union members from across the state came together Tuesday for a summit on the minimum wage hosted by the Nevada AFL-CIO at the College of Southern Nevada Cheyenne Campus.
The policies that union leaders discussed were nothing new: a living wage, immigration reform and health care. But the summit foreshadowed something else — the significant push that Nevada unions plan to before the 2016 election in the wake of a dismal midterm election for the state’s Democrats in 2014.
Organized labor played a crucial role in securing victories for Nevada Democrats in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Unions helped President Barack Obama win Nevada in both elections and assisted with Sen. Harry Reid’s 2010 re-election.
By contrast, in the 2014 midterm election unions scaled back their efforts, providing minimal and late ground support. Politicians, activists and pundits> blamed the Republican sweep of statewide offices and the Legislature at least partially on the lack of involvement by Nevada labor.
“In 2014, we stayed silent,” said Blanca Gamez, who works with the advocacy group Battle Born Progress.
Unions point to the Republican-controlled Nevada Legislature as one result of that election. GOP legislators put forward more than 30 bills during its 2015 session to make changes to collective bargaining, prevailing wage, health benefits, workers compensation and others, which unions viewed as attacks.
“That was an awful election,” said Danny Thompson, head of the state’s AFL-CIO which represents about 200,000 workers across 120 unions. “I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the red tide sweeping the nation.”
Lessons learned, unions said. 2016 will be different.
Unions are already planning to scale up their efforts, targeting local, state and national elections. More is at stake this year, of course. There’s the presidency, a senate race, as well as four congressional races and the control of the Nevada Legislature up for grabs.
Thompson promised “a ramped up ground campaign” from the AFL-CIO that they didn’t have in 2014.
The strategies are nothing new: register voters, encourage people to caucus and convince their neighbors to caucus, and recruit volunteers to make calls and knock on doors. But it’s those simple strategies that can make all the difference.
At the same time, Democratic candidates are courting union support.
Speaking at the summit Tuesday, former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running to replace Sen. Harry Reid, said the only reason that her father earned a “decent wage” as a parking attendant working at the now-demolished Dunes Hotel and Casino was because he was a member of the Teamsters Union.
Also present was State Sen. Ruben Kihuen who attended but did not speak at the summit. Kihuen has already secured significant local union support in a four-way Democratic primary to challenge Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy.
But it’s still early in the game. Though some unions have started to endorse candidates individually, the Nevada AFL-CIO’s endorsement process won’t even start until the candidate filing deadline in March. The national AFL-CIO hasn’t endorsed yet either.
“If and when we endorse in the primary, it’ll be an all-out effort,” said Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.
Also still on the sidelines is Culinary Workers Local 226, Nevada’s largest and most politically active union, which has not yet announced an endorsement in the 2016 presidential race.
Right now, the unions are rallying around issues, not candidates, Gebre said. That’s why it hosted the Raising Wages Summit here in the state, to get union members here to start thinking about the issues they want to see discussed in the general election.
Talking about ideas instead of candidates also gives the AFL-CIO the flexibility to push its agenda, instead of the other way around.
“Our agenda comes first. It drives our politics and not the other way around,” said Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president. “We refuse to accept a less bad candidate. We don’t want the lesser of two evils.”