Bernie Sanders And The Culinary Workers: Behind Effort In Nevada To Undermine Support For His Campaign

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Jon Ralston, political journalist, commentator, and founder of The Nevada Independent (Screen shot from MSNBC is fair use as it is included for news reporting and criticism)

Weeks before the Nevada caucuses, Senator Bernie Sanders’ Democratic presidential campaign engaged in massive outreach to rank-and-file workers in the Culinary Workers Union, which is viewed as highly influential in the state.

The Sanders campaign talked to workers at their homes and work sites. They sent “hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail to culinary workers, who are Latino in Nevada.”

Yet, about a week before early voting started in the Nevada caucuses, the Culinary Workers Union leadership moved to suppress interest and support for Sanders among their own members.

Leadership approved and distributed a “union scorecard” for presidential candidates that singled-out Sanders as a candidate who would “end Culinary Healthcare,” “require Medicare For All,” and “lower drug prices.”

The Nevada Independent, a “nonpartisan nonprofit news and opinion website founded in 2017 by veteran political journalist and commentator Jon Ralston,” gained notoriety for reporting on the scorecard. Coverage stirred anger among lowly Sanders supporters, and the narrative evolved: “Democrat Sanders, Nevada union in escalating feud ahead of state nominating contest.”

It upset several rank-and-file workers, including workers in the larger umbrella organization known as UNITE HERE. They urged members to sign on to a letter of support for Sanders and Medicare For All.

Union leadership announced on February 13 they would not endorse any candidate.

What went virtually ignored was the conflicts of interest of the Nevada Independent, as well as the record Ralston has as a political journalist known for promoting false stories and manufacturing the news. Nor was there attention given to the Culinary Health Fund and the incentive that union leadership has to drive a wedge between Sanders and rank-and-file workers.

As POLITICO noted, the Culinary Workers Union and its affiliates “represent some 60,000 workers in the restaurant and hospitality industries in Las Vegas and Reno. It is also the largest immigrant organization in the state, with Latinos accounting for more than half of its membership, and it is a major source of voter mobilization.”

“Nevada is the early voting state with the largest Latino population, 29 percent,” POLITICO added.

Ralston’s Nevada Independent has received $957,500 from MGM Resorts International, which owns The Mirage, $145,000 from Caesars Enterprise Services LLC, $31,500 from Boyd Gaming, and $7,500 from Caesars Entertainment.

The Culinary Health Fund is what is known as a multi-employer Taft-Hartley Fund. It pays for health insurance coverage for members through collective bargaining agreements.

Employer trustees for the Culinary Health Fund include executives from Boyd Gaming, Caesars Palace, Hilton Worldwide, Hostmark Hospitality Group, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, The Mirage, Sodexo, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Tishman Hotel Corporation, and Geneva HRM Advisors, which is involved in corporate labor relations.

Neither of these donors were disclosed at the bottom of the Nevada Independent’s coverage, despite the outlet’s stated commitment to transparency. However, the outlet acknowledged the Culinary Workers Union donated $7,325 to support their work.

The casino and gaming corporations, which financially support the Nevada Independent, have an incentive to keep contract negotiations focused on health care to limit the leverage union workers have to demand better pensions, higher wages, and improved workplace conditions, which may undercut profits.

Spreading Fake News During The 2016 Primary

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Jon Ralston on KTNV Channel 13 Las Vegas in 2016. (Screen shot from KTNV and fair use as it is included for news reporting and criticism.)

Ralston will be one of the moderators for the MSNBC/NBC News Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, which is scheduled for February 19.

In 2016, according to Snopes, a leading fact-checking organization, Ralston falsely claimed that Sanders supporters “threw chairs at a Nevada convention.” It was “widely reproduced by other news outlets,” including MSNBC, CBS, the Associated Press, and the New York Times.

“Convention ended w/security shutting it down, Bernie folks rushed stage, yelling obscenities, throwing chairs. Unity Now! On to Philly 2/2,” Ralston tweeted. He also declared., “Hey, Berniebot chair-throwing truthers: It happened. People saw it, including one journalist who was there and reported it.”

Around three weeks before the Nevada caucuses in 2016, Ralston “reported” that “operatives from Bernie Sanders’ campaign [had] donned Culinary union pins and secured access to employee areas inside [Las Vegas] Strip hotels to try to garner votes for the February 20 caucus,” according to “sources.”

A headline at his personal website read, “Sanders workers are masquerading as Culinary members to campaign inside hotels.”

Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the secretary-treasurer for the union, “confirmed” the reports of Sanders’ staffers “attempting and gaining access to employee dining rooms.” She said the union was “disappointed and offended,” and added, “It’s completely inappropriate for any campaign to attempt to mislead Culinary Union members, especially at their place of work.”

Neera Tanden, the Center for American Progress director who was a part of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, gleefully shared a link from CAP’s Think Progress website, where the story from Ralston was boosted. “See we are not always bad!” (Argüello-Kline is a member of CAP’s Advisory Board.)

Jennifer Palmieri, who was the Clinton campaign’s communications director, replied, “It’s great!”

CNN followed-up on the report. Jeff Weaver, the campaign manager for Sanders’ 2016 campaign, maintained no staffers “ever misrepresented who they were.” In fact, Sanders staffers wore the Culinary Union’s button “in solidarity with people” in the union. They also wore “Bernie paraphernalia.”

Emilia Pablo, who was the Nevada communications director for Sanders, was stunned by the response of the Culinary Workers Union. “It is surprising because we have been building a positive relationship with them from the moment that we go to the ground. We have always thought we have had a positive relationship with them and for them to come out so strongly against us and to go to the press first, that surprises me.”

In both election cycles, the effort to undermine support among not only rank-and-file members but also Latinos in Nevada came as Sanders surged in the polls. Clinton, as Ralston reported, saw a 25-point lead in Nevada evaporate after Sanders’ huge victory in New Hampshire.

A national Morning Consult poll released on February 12 showed Sanders surged 10 percent among Latino voters to 48 percent. “Political strategy company Plus Three found in a study published [February 13 that Sanders has four times the donations from Hispanics of any other Democrat running for president,” according to Common Dreams.

“In Iowa’s 12 Hispanic-majority caucuses, Sanders got more than 66 percent of the raw vote. The next highest percentage was former Vice President Joe Biden, with close to 11 percent of the vote,” wrote Al Día’s Nigel Thompson.

Biden’s campaign has cratered since the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, leaving industry interests panicked that Sanders may pick up a massive win in Nevada.

Culinary Workers Town Hall ‘Was Not Pretty For Bernie Sanders’

Although Jon Ralston did not author the reporting at the Nevada Independent, he went on MSNBC multiple times to promote the agenda of Culinary Workers Union leadership.

“The union has basically said to members, listen — this is the leadership, of course. We have your best interests at heart. We have gotten you this Cadillac plan. Bernie Sanders wants to take that away,” Ralston declared on “MSNBC Live” on February 13. “Whether you agree with that characterization or not, that is the messaging to their members.”

Ralston added, “Bernie Sanders and the other candidates went and did town halls with the Culinary members. The issue [of health care] came up, and it was not pretty for Bernie Sanders.”

Yet, video of the town hall, which occurred on December 10, shows Ralston is misrepresenting or outright exaggerating the tension that occurred between Sanders and union members.

At the town hall, Sanders was told by a member, who was part of the Frontier Hotel and Casino worker strike, one of the longest labor strikes in history, that she wanted to keep her Culinary Health Plan. She was very concerned about losing coverage if Medicare For All was adopted.

Sanders let her speak, and then he launched into part of his stump speech. “Number one, we’re going to expand Medicare to cover dental care. Because dental care is health care,” and, “We’re going to make sure everyone in America who need it has hearing aids, has eyeglasses.”

“And the other thing that we are going to do is have Medicare cover home health care so that elderly people are not pushed out of their homes,” Sanders added.

Workers cheered and applauded the policy proposals, which Sanders advocated.

“We are going to have Medicare For All because we are going to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and lower drug prices significantly. Nobody will pay more than $200/year for prescription drugs,” Sanders promised.

A small group of members in attendance chanted, “Union health care! Union health care!” But Sanders never lost control of the room. He directly addressed the concern about their union health plan.

“Because we spend so much on health care, your employer is spending a lot on your health care,” Sanders replied. He argued ending the “bureaucratic nightmare of thousands of separate health programs that have to be administered” would save “hundreds of billions of dollars.”

Medicare For All would mean “your employer will not have to pay $15,000 a year for your health care. Your employer will pay $3,000. That’s a $12,000 differential. You know who gets the $12,000? You get the $12,000,” Sanders stated.

What Sanders said was met with cheering and applause, and he reiterated some of the points he previously made then concluded his answer. The crowd applauded, and by that time, there was no more chanting or disruptions.

Still, D. Taylor, who once led and grew Culinary Workers Union, took the microphone and said, “I believe in town hall meetings, but we’re going to let candidates speak without any sort of heckling. And if you want to heckle, go outside.”

Workers did not boo or become angry when Taylor scolded a small group in attendance. They did not object. Rather, there were people who clapped when Taylor admonished them.

Furthermore, Taylor declared, “This union stands very strongly that every single American, just like Senator Sanders has said, deserves to have good quality health care. It is a right. It should never be a privilege in this country,” which workers applauded.

Ralston and the Nevada Independent omitted any specific details from this town hall from their coverage. Nor did they explore any of the issues around union health care.

‘I Just Hate Socialists’

Weaver previously described Ralston as a “journalist/talking head held out as a local expert on state politics — your go-to insider.”

He wrote in his book, How Bernie Won, “Most states have one. Unlike most, Ralston’s view is, shall we say, more ‘truthy’ than truthful.”

The “truthiness” of Ralston’s views inflame widespread opposition to the very brand of cynical political journalism that he has peddled to make a name for himself. Dividing or undermining support among Latinos, who support or are interested in the Sanders campaign, benefits industry interests in Nevada and beyond.

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Back on April 25, 2017, the Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America asked Ralston, “What bias do you operate under then? What is your ideology? Educate us.” He responded, “I just hate socialists.”

Finally, Ralston and The Nevada Independent claim to be nonpartisan, but Stephen Cloobeck, the founder of Diamond Resorts International and a big-money donor to the Democratic Party, has contributed $600,000 to the Nevada Independent.

In 2016, he donated $1 million to Priorities USA, a Super PAC aligned with Clinton, and over a half million to the HIllary Victory Fund and Hillary Action Fund. He also gave $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee.

Many rank-and-file workers in the Culinary Workers Union and UNITE HERE believe Medicare For All would offer them a huge benefit because it would “expand and improve” upon their health care “benefits and choices available to members.” It would “provide benefits” to their “extended family and adult children currently excluded” from their plans.

Expanding Medicare For All would “guarantee uninterrupted health care regardless of layoff, job loss, or disability.” It would “completely eliminate out-of-pocket costs, such as co-pays and premiums.” And it would “guarantee money saved by employers will go to workers” — and not bosses, giving members a pay raise.

Ralston, the Nevada Independent, and the corporate interests that fund his media outlet are entrenched in the status quo, which is why they push a story about literature from the Culinary Workers Union leadership that divisively suggests Sanders is as much of a threat to rank-and-file workers as Trump.

Journalist. Writes about politics. Managing editor of Twitter: @kgosztola

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