Bernie Sanders is leading in the Nevada polls, but he faces a major obstacle: One of the most powerful actors in state politics has come out swinging against his signature proposal—Medicare for All.
The 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union announced last Thursday that it will remain neutral in the Democratic primary this year. But in the past week, the union has sent out a series of communications to members warning, both directly and indirectly, that Sanders’ plan threatens its hard-won healthcare benefits.
One flyer circulated by the union read, “Some politicians promise … ‘You will get more money for wages from the company if you give up Culinary Health Insurance.’ These politicians have never sat at our bargaining table … We will not hand over our healthcare for promises.”
Sanders’ opponents have seized on the opening to double down on arguments for preserving private health insurance—a position the union shares.
“There are 14 million union workers in America who have fought hard for strong, employer-provided health benefits,” tweeted former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “Medicare for All Who Want It protects their plans and union members’ freedom to choose the coverage that’s best for them.”
Billionaire Tom Steyer, meanwhile, has started airing an ad in Nevada telling voters that “unions don’t like” Sanders’ healthcare plan.
Known nationally as a standard-bearer for militant workplace organizing, the Culinary Union hasn’t just won healthcare benefits—it runs its own 24-hour healthcare center and pharmacy, exclusively for members.
But some members are disillusioned that the union is flexing its muscle against a healthcare policy they believe could deliver a windfall to unions by freeing them to focus on other issues at the bargaining table.
In These Times spoke to Marcie Wells, a shop steward with Culinary Workers 226 who has worked at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville inside the Flamingo Hotel and Casino for 16 years. Wells discussed Medicare for All, the union’s endorsement decision and her support for Bernie Sanders.
There was a lot of speculation as to whether the union might still endorse Joe Biden. What was your reaction to the decision not to endorse anyone in the primary?
[Union leaders] said early on that they were not sure if they were going to endorse. When they called this press conference, everyone expected that they were going to go ahead and endorse Biden, because they already said they weren’t endorsing. So why would you put together all that just to repeat yourself?
The literature they put out the night before was not so subtle. It had the words “one, two, three,” and three candidates in order [Editor’s note: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are listed first on the flyer]. Everyone knows in the caucus, you rank your top three choices. But they’re not officially endorsing.
I think it sends mixed signals, and it’s disappointing that they’re not being straightforward.
Did the union poll members about the endorsement?
No, they didn’t. Typically, I get called for those types of things, because I’m a shop steward.
Talking one-on-one, a lot of members want Bernie. But when we’re in the setting of citywide meetings or things that are exclusive to shop stewards, there’s a clear message that, “the person who wants Medicare for All wants to take away our hard work.”
It’s disappointing as a progressive.
At a town hall the union held with Sanders in December, some members heckled over the issue of healthcare. Can you describe what you saw happen?
At this type of event, all the questions are planned. When Bernie started talking about healthcare, almost on cue, a group started chanting, “Union healthcare! Union healthcare!”
When a speaker said, “I don’t want to give up my insurance,” I yelled back, “I do!”
But aside from what felt like a staged protest, Bernie got a great reception, people were cheering. I mean, he’s the frickin’ union guy.
The culinary union has the reputation of having some of the best healthcare in Las Vegas. How well does it work for you?
Relatively speaking, it is some of the best. But it doesn’t work well for me, because I have chronic illness. I have ankylosing spondylitis and bilateral uveitis that’s recurring. I’ve had this condition since high school, and I’ve been misdiagnosed, delayed diagnosed, not believed as a Black woman, told that I was exaggerating my symptoms.
Most recently, my eyes were so inflamed that my eye doctor called a rheumatologist in the Culinary network, and she wasn’t going to be able to see me for 7 months. I had to do a GoFundMe to pay for a doctor outside of my network so I could not go blind.
I don’t think the private insurance market is good for people with chronic illnesses, and I think it’s pretty ableist to pretend that it is. If I’m waiting 8 months to see a specialist but I’m having symptoms throughout that time, nine times out of 10 I’m going to get fired for missing work. And to even start getting that insurance in the first place, you have to work 360 hours within a certain time frame.
There’s also a copay every time I go to a specialist. More likely than not, I’ll skip something most months. I would love Medicare for All right about now.
Why do you think the union has come out so strongly against Medicare for All?
I think there’s a conflict of interest there. We have a labor union, and a political lobby with a PAC, and a healthcare business, all wrapped up in one.
They built the Culinary Health Center, so that’s theirs. Word on the street is they’ve already paid for the parcel of land to build the next one. So they’re in the business now—they’re the establishment to an extent. So I think capitalism is the reason that they’re coming out against Medicare for All, and it’s just really troubling.
Nevada’s uninsured rate is 14%, and there are big racial disparities in who doesn’t have insurance—in Nevada it’s indigenous people, Black people, Latino people. Medicare for All is a racial justice issue. For the union to have an 80% demographic of [people of color] and be pulling this, it’s just unbelievable. I’m disgusted.
Do you think the messaging against Medicare for All will impact how members vote in the primary?
That’s what’s shitty about this whole thing. Some of these people are going to vote against their best interest because they trusted the Culinary Union.
But a lot of members do want Bernie. The younger members, the members whose young kids are getting them involved. I think I flipped a dishwasher the other day. So we’re all doing our best, but it’s just disheartening that we’re fighting against both the GOP and the union.
This article was originally published at In These Times on February 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.