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Nevada Culinary Workers Union Member: I Would Trade My Union Healthcare for Medicare for All

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The third presidential contest of the primary season takes place Saturday in Nevada. One of the state’s most coveted endorsements is from the Culinary Workers Union, which represents some 60,000 workers in the restaurant and hospitality industries in Las Vegas and Reno. Its membership is 54% Latinx. But last week they decided not to endorse any of the candidates. Nevada is a “right to work” state, and the Culinary Workers Union has attracted members by offering them healthcare. It has said it supports “choices” in healthcare. The mobilization of service employees could be critical to winning the Nevada caucuses. We speak with In These Times labor reporter Hamilton Nolan and Marcie Wells, an activist, waitress, single parent, and a member of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada for 16 years. Her essay for CommonDreams.org is titled “I Have 'Some of the Best' Health Insurance a Union Member Can Get, But I Would Trade It Today for Medicare for All.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Nevada, where the third state presidential primary vote takes place in the Nevada caucus on Saturday. Early voting ended Tuesday, and polling stations reported long lines with more than 36,000 residents of the state opting to vote early. Amid growing fears the vote-counting debacle in the Iowa caucus could be repeated, the chair of the Nevada Democratic Party has said they will not be using the same vote-reporting app or vendor, and have developed backup reporting systems. Nevada is the first state in the West to cast its vote in the Democratic race for the presidential nomination and also the first diverse state to be heard from so far.

One of the state’s most coveted endorsements is from the Culinary Workers Union, a division of UNITE HERE, which represents some 60,000 workers in the restaurant and hospitality industries in Las Vegas and Reno. Its membership is 54% Latinx. Last week, they decided not to endorse any of the candidates. This is Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, speaking Thursday outside the union’s headquarters in Las Vegas.

GEOCONDA ARGÜELLO-KLINE: The official announcement is we’re going to endorse our goals, what we’re doing. That’s what we’re going to endorse. We’re not going to endorse a candidate, a political candidate. We respect every single political candidate right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Nevada is a so-called right-to-work state, and the Culinary Workers Union has attracted members by offering them healthcare. It says it supports “choices” in healthcare. The mobilization of service employees could be critical to winning the Nevada caucuses, so the union’s lack of endorsement for any candidate could be a setback for former Vice President Joe Biden and an opening for moderate candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. The Culinary Workers Union also decided not to endorse a candidate in 2016 race during the primaries between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

For more, we go to Las Vegas, where we’re joined by two guests. Marcie Wells is with us. She’s an activist, a waitress, a single parent, who’s been a member of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada for 16 years. She wrote an essay for Common Dreams titled “I Have 'Some of the Best' Health Insurance a Union Member Can Get, But I Would Trade It Today for Medicare for All.” Also with us, Hamilton Nolan, labor reporter for In These Times.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Hamilton, why don’t you give us the lay of the land in Nevada, why the Culinary Workers Union is so significant and the story of the healthcare they provide and why they have chosen not to support Medicare for All?

HAMILTON NOLAN: Yeah. Well, the Culinary Workers Union is one of the best unions in America, no doubt about it. There are about 60,000 members strong. They have successfully unionized the casino industry in Las Vegas. And they’re really a role model for building power in a single industry for unions and for elevating people into the middle class who would not have otherwise been able to have middle-class jobs. So they’re a great union.

They run their own healthcare center. Healthcare is a big benefit of being in the Culinary Workers Union. And I think that that is the reality that’s running up against the issue of Medicare for All in these primaries. And the idealism of Medicare for All, that a lot of people in the Democratic Party and in the world of organized labor would like to see, is running up against unions that do run their own healthcare and use that as a benefit to help attract workers, especially in a right-to-work state like Nevada, where it can be harder to attract and maintain numbers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, of course, Hamilton, that issue runs up against the reality that unless you’re going to be a member of the Culinary Workers Union for life and never leave to go to another job, that you will have health insurance, but, obviously, if you move to some other occupation, you face the reality that the healthcare that you get may not be — or the health insurance that you have may be far inferior. Do you know what the debate has been, your sense, within the union on this issue?

HAMILTON NOLAN: There definitely is a debate. And there’s a debate not only within the Culinary Workers Union, but within the union world at large and within every major union in America right now. And progressives do want Medicare for All. And really, if you talk to a lot of people in the union world, if you talk to people who have negotiated union contracts, they’ll tell you that if unions did not have to bargain over healthcare, they would have so much more political capital to use to make other gains for workers: wages and things like that. So, in a big picture sense, I think Medicare for All would be a great thing for unions and for organized labor. It’s sort of this transition period where you have all these different unions that have their own healthcare plans that they have expended a lot of political capital on over the years, and they’re extremely nervous about, I think, the bridge between what we have now and what Medicare for All would be. So, it’s going to require a leap of faith on behalf of the Culinary Workers Union and organized labor as a whole.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcie Wells, you’re with Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada. You’ve been a proud union member for something like 16 years. Tell us your story, what kind of healthcare you have. Can you talk about — how does the healthcare work? You go down to a union hall, you sign up for the healthcare at the beginning and join the union at the same time?

MARCIE WELLS: Absolutely. So, specifically for the place that I work, it was being opened when everyone started, when I started. So, it was automatically union, so signing up for the union gets you the healthcare. You do have to work 360 hours to qualify for the healthcare. So, if you’re just starting out as a steady extra or something along those lines, you have to meet minimum requirements. And then, once you meet those requirements, you have to work 240 hours within a two-month period, or you don’t qualify. In that case, for each hour that you’re short, you can pay $5 per hour to keep your insurance. So, that’s kind of how the insurance works. It’s not exactly free; it costs labor.

So, for someone like me, I suffer with chronic illness. There are flares, and there are moments when I can’t work. And in addition to that, there are moments when I’m not able to get into the specialist I need to see in a timely manner, so I end up missing a lot of work, not qualifying for the insurance and sort of not even having the resources from work to pay for that insurance. So, for someone with chronic illnesses, it is not really the best insurance.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you do have full coverage, what are some of the copays or the requirements out of pocket for workers? Are there any?

MARCIE WELLS: Well, if you’re going to the Culinary Health Center, there are not copays. But at the same time, there aren’t any specialists there. So, a person like me would still have to go outside of that location. It’s $15 for a regular doctor visit, $20 to $30 per specialist visit. If I need an MRI, which I do frequently, it’s $125 each time. An endoscopy is $150. So there are out-of-pocket costs, just like with any other private insurance, because that’s what it is. It’s private insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the debate within your union about whether to endorse Medicare for All, and how your co-workers feel.

MARCIE WELLS: Well, I wouldn’t even say it’s much of a debate as it relates to co-workers, especially for people that have been working in the industry for a long time. Locally, we have this sort of local lore about culinary union and good insurance, but there’s also the idea of these golden handcuffs that sort of keep you tethered to an industry that you may not be physically or emotionally invested in anymore and there’s not really a way out.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And —

MARCIE WELLS: So, the debate —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Go ahead.

MARCIE WELLS: The debate is more centered around democracy, and people feeling like their voices are not being heard by the union that represents them. You know, we’re paying dues, and at the same time culinary has a political PAC that a lot of us donate money to. So, it’s kind of disheartening to get to this moment and see that we’re not being heard and we’re also being intentionally or unintentionally misled, because for everyone that is a person that looks like me in America, you’re more likely to be uninsured than someone who is white or Asian. And that is not any different here in Nevada. So it’s kind of sad to think that in Nevada you will only be protected under the umbrella of the culinary union. We have friends and family here that aren’t in the union, and, you know, it sort of projects this false image of elitism in a working-class town.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you. The union in the past has mobilized members to participate in caucuses. If I’m not mistaken, some caucuses were even held on the grounds of some of the hotels. What’s been the mobilization effort to get out members to vote, even if the union is not endorsing any candidate this time around?

MARCIE WELLS: It’s the same as any political organization, because that side is more politically based. So, there are town halls at the union with each candidate. There are text messages and, you know, just reaching out to get members to participate in the process and to influence members on which way to vote as it relates to how a person could benefit the culinary union as a whole. So they sort of give an overview of good for union/bad for union, and then let the workers do the rest. And there are Strip caucus locations for people that work day shifts, so you don’t have to miss out or leave work. They’re right inside the hotels, so that’s very convenient. So, yeah, I would say this time around there’s a lot of attention on caucusing and a lot of attention on Medicare for All. And the culinary’s message is we don’t want Medicare for All. But membership message is we want Medicare for All.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcie Wells, you wrote, in your essay for Common Dreams, that last November you attended a Bernie Sanders town hall held by the union in Las Vegas. And tell us what you saw.

MARCIE WELLS: Well, in general, it was great. Bernie was getting great reception from the crowd. And then, when the question-and-answer portion happened, a little chaos erupted, and people started heckling, chanting “Union healthcare! Union Healthcare!” And I did see people that were employed by the union, paid organizers, in the middle of those chants. In addition to that, the questions that were asked were not random. I don’t think I would ever get an opportunity to stand up and ask a question, because they’re kind of staged, if you will. They’re preselected, and the people that are going to ask them are also preselected.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Hamilton Nolan, can you talk about what the nonendorsement means? Who do you think ultimately lost here? I mean, of course, you have Bernie Sanders, who endorses Medicare for All, and then you have Vice President Biden, who also didn’t get the endorsement and doesn’t support Medicare for All.

HAMILTON NOLAN: Yeah, it’s interesting, and there are a lot of competing theories out there, and I’ve heard a lot of competing theories and rumors about this. I mean, in one sense, Bernie Sanders did lose, because he, I think, would make the argument that he is the candidate, the strongest candidate, for organized labor, and so the fact that he didn’t get the culinary workers’ endorsement, you could say, is a loss for him. On the other hand, there were rumors flying when — last week, when the union put out the flyer that kind of dinged Bernie. Everybody started talking about who they were going to endorse. “Are they going to endorse Pete? Are they going to endorse Biden? Are they going to endorse Warren?” Obviously, all those candidates who didn’t win Iowa and New Hampshire would love to get that endorsement, because it’s seen as a real pathway to winning Nevada.

And I think that the fact that the union didn’t endorse anyone may be a bit of a signal that they looked at the polls and thought about the fact that they don’t want to endorse somebody in Nevada who doesn’t win Nevada, because if the union were to come out and endorse a candidate that didn’t win, it makes the union look weak. And that did happen in 2008, I believe. They endorsed Obama, and he didn’t win Nevada. That’s not something that the culinary union wants to do. So, a lot of people that I spoke to saw the nonendorsement as sort of a tacit acknowledgment that Bernie Sanders is looking very strong in Nevada, and they decided to just stay out of it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Hamilton, the issue that some of the leaders of the Culinary Workers Union raised about harassment and threats by Bernie Sanders supporters that they received afterward, do you get a sense that this is having any impact on how people will vote? I know Bernie Sanders did come out with a statement saying that that’s not what his supporters should be doing, but he didn’t really come down hard on his people and tell them to stop it.

HAMILTON NOLAN: Yeah. I mean, I think it goes to the core issue that Bernie Sanders does not control everybody on Twitter. I mean, I’ve been writing on the internet for 10 years, and I can tell you that every time I write something or say something on the internet, there’s a thousand people who call me an idiot. And, you know, it happens on the internet. And the fact that people are saying mean things on Twitter, I think, is not necessarily an issue for the Bernie Sanders campaign per se. I mean, you saw Mike Bloomberg actually put out an attack ad recently, just pulling things that people had said on Twitter, mean things. So, it’s clear that campaigns are trying to make this an issue, but I think if we’re being fair, you can’t really hold a campaign responsible for something that random people are saying on Twitter.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the issue of Mayor Bloomberg, but we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re speaking right now with Hamilton Nolan, who is a labor reporter with In These Times, and Marcie Wells of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada, where the caucus will take place on Saturday. Stay with us.

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