Las Vegas Sun

December 6, 2019

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What role will unions play in the 2020 presidential election?

The largest 2020 presidential campaign event so far in Nevada was inexorably tied to organized labor.

In early August, 19 Democratic presidential candidates attended a forum sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. During the course of the day and multiple political talking points, all 19 candidates expressed their support for collective bargaining for public employees.

The prevalence of labor, however, isn’t confined to one Nevada event—candidates hitting the union circuit in Las Vegas isn’t new. In the buildup to the 2020 election, the state has seen multiple stops from multiple campaigns, and many—almost all, in fact—have at least included stops at some form of union event.

Nevada is the first state west of the Mississippi River, and third overall, to choose its nominee for president. It’s commonly seen as a bellwether for the West as a whole, and more indicative of the country’s overall population than the earlier, whiter states such as New Hampshire and Iowa.

“I think labor is very important right now for the candidates,” said Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226.

Argüello-Kline said that unions are a dominant force in Las Vegas because of their fight for workers’ rights, including a higher standard of living and better opportunities to take care of their family.

When asked why she thinks Las Vegas and Nevada have large union representation, she answers quickly.

“I think it’s because we’ve been fighting for 84 years here in Las Vegas,” she said.

In a race in which the dichotomy between the left and right seems to be more pronounced than ever, it’s perhaps not surprising that Democratic candidates are appealing to organized labor to bolster their working-class voting bloc.

The Democratic field in the 2020 election ranges from moderate—think former Maryland Rep. John Delaney—to progressive—think Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—but essentially all of them are courting the support of organized labor.

A few examples: former Vice President Joe Biden’s first Las Vegas campaign stop was at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT). Sens. Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, spoke with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Campaigning to the state’s unions makes sense politically. As the biggest metro area in a state with ample union membership, Las Vegas is an organized labor mecca, and the amount of union votes in Nevada is not insubstantial.

Nevada has one of the strongest union membership rates for states with right-to-work laws. These laws, hotly disparaged by both unions and many of the 2020 candidates, mean that unions cannot require that employees join a union or pay membership dues to the union. According to the national Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nevada’s total union membership in 2018—191,000—is about 13.9% of the total population of employed workers.

Arizona, with a little more than twice Nevada’s population, has 156,000 employees in a union. Texas, with around nine times the population, has 512,000 union employees. Wisconsin, with almost twice the population, has 219,000 union employees.

None of these states’ union populations crack 9% of their total workforce. Texas doesn’t even surpass 5%.

So, receiving a union endorsement could bring with it a plethora of votes. Researchers have argued that union members are more politically engaged because of the nature of their work and by union outreach activities. Couple that higher political engagement with a group that traditionally leans Democratic, and it’s not hard to see why a union endorsement would be good for any Democrat hoping to launch forward in Nevada—and nationwide.

A few candidates made further pitches for the union vote at another large-scale organized labor event later in August. Thousands of members of IUPAT attended the union’s multiday convention at Caesars Palace.

Candidates have gone out of their way to take part in Las Vegas union events even without being able to physically attend. Multiple candidates, including Sanders and South Bend, Indiana’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke over video at the conference.

Sanders has positioned himself as a union advocate candidate. In his call-in to the IUPAT conference, he stressed the importance of organized labor and said that his appointments would be “pro-worker.”

“My promise to you is that, if elected president, there will not have been a more pro-union president in the White House since Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” he said. “I will stand with workers.”

Buttigieg spoke on paid sick leave and family leave, and the need to close the pay gap—the pay ratio between men and women is 83%, according to the American Association of University Women.

“Our economy has changed a tremendous amount over the course of my life—to me, that makes the role of labor even more important,” he said, and that he was tired of “being in rooms with economic development experts scratching their heads” about jobs and skills training. Apprentice programs, he said, have been providing this training for years.

Klobuchar appeared in person at the event. The senator has made her family’s union history part of her campaign. Klobuchar, in her appearance, said that IUPAT and organized labor were necessary for the rebuilding of the country’s middle class.

Argüello-Kline said that the unions and their membership realize it is important to be politically active for multiple reasons, including protections for the working class and immigrants.

The Culinary Union’s membership is diverse—54% Latino, 19% white, 15% Asian, 10% black and less than 1% from indigenous populations.

“This country was built by immigrants. And we know right now that immigrants are under attack,” Argüello-Kline said.

With this level of engagement, she said, along with Nevada’s position as an early state in the nominating process, she understands why Vegas is attractive to both working people and to political leaders looking to bolster support.

“We do voter registrations every single day,” she said. “We’re active all the time.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.