LAS VEGAS – Depending on who’s talking, it’s either a major election-year bluff or a devastating political hand dealt to Democrats.
The leader of the largest and most potent labor union in Nevada is threatening that he and his 55,000 foot-soldiers will sit out the fall elections in this crucial battleground for the Senate and the presidency. Culinary Local 226 has been a critical centerpiece in the vaunted Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts in Nevada. The union bused workers to the polls in 2010, helping propel Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to victory. In the 2008 presidential contest, its members helped carry the state for then-candidate Barack Obama.
But this year D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the union, said that the fall campaigns aren’t a priority. With all their contracts with local unionized casinos expired and a bitter organizing fight underway with the non-union Station Casinos chain, Taylor said that the group is at capacity.
“We really divide between two things, which [are] our contracts and Stations,” Taylor told National Journal. “I’ve told everybody if we don’t have those settled, or some of them settled, we’re not going to lie to you and tell you we’re going to be involved politically.”
Taylor isn’t bashful about wanting some help from the same Democratic politicians the union has helped elect over the years. But such assistance has not been forthcoming. “Sometimes the Democrats wonder why workers don’t rally around them. It’s because they really don’t rally around workers in time of need,” he said.
The union’s warning shot has ricocheted across Nevada politics, though neither party is sure how to react to a labor union known for its hardball tactics.
“I don’t think the Culinary ever makes idle threats,” said Jan Jones, a two-term former Democratic mayor of Las Vegas who is now an executive with the casino-operating Caesar’s Entertainment.
The impact could trickle down past the presidential level. Nevada is home to one of the top Senate races in the country, with appointed GOP Sen. Dean Heller trying to win a full term and Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, vying to stop him. The Las Vegas region is also home to one of the most contested House races in the country involving the reelection of freshman Republican Rep. Joe Heck.
Republicans still expect the union to fully mobilize for all those Democrats this fall. Ryan Erwin, a top Republican strategist in the state, said he found it “pretty improbable” that so important a player would stay on the sidelines. “All Republican candidates are assuming the Democrats will pull out all the stops,” Erwin said.
The Democrats remain hopeful. “We are confident that our allies understand that the road to the White House and control of the U.S. Senate runs through Nevada,” Nevada Democratic Party spokesman Zac Petkanas said in a statement.
Few people in politics question the potency of an engaged culinary union, which represents housekeepers, cooks, and others in the Las Vegas hospitality industry. When national strategists speak about the sophisticated Nevada political machine that Reid, the Democratic leader, has erected over the years, Local 226 is a key component, particularly among the crucial Hispanic constituency.
About 45 percent of the culinary union’s membership is Latino, a population notoriously difficult to bring to the polls. But the union has proved adept at identifying its voters and getting them to vote, strategists of both parties agree. “We’re the largest Latino organization in Nevada,” Taylor said. “You know when they all talk about the Latino vote? That’s us. They never like to say that.”
With Las Vegas at the epicenter of the housing bust and subsequent foreclosure crisis, Taylor said he is focused on tending to the needs of his struggling rank-and-file membership. “Our members have been in economic survival mode, they worry about whether they’ll pay their mortgage,” he said, not about politics.
Still, Taylor acknowledged that the election stakes are high, saying a GOP takeover of the Senate, the White House, or both would be a “disaster” for the union moment. “We’ll be back to the robber-baron era,” he said.
Taylor said he wants to wrap up existing contract negotiations before the elections and, more ambitiously, make inroads in a years-long fight to unionize Station Casinos, itself a powerful player in Nevada politics. Asked if he has sought help from Reid in that fight, Taylor paused, blinked twice and said, “You just have to follow the money.”
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that PACs and people tied to Station Casinos have been among the top 10 donors to Reid in every election cycle since 2002, with more than $74,000 given this cycle alone. Station has been a major contributor to both sides of the political aisle.
Mike Sloan, senior vice president for government relations for Station Casinos, said that the fight with the union hasn’t impacted its political relationships. “We have seen no diminution in request for campaign contributions from Democrats,” Sloan said. He tarred the union’s efforts as a self-serving attempt to collect more member dues. “It’s not so much that the employees want the union but the union wants the employees,” Sloan said.
Whatever the outcome, Sig Rogich, an influential Republican operative in the state, was dubious the union could resist getting involved.
“To take the size, weight, and strength of the culinary union — which I think is significant — and tell them they’re just going to sit out the election cycle in a presidential-election year when it’s as important to the union movement as any time in history perhaps, I don’t think they they’re going to do that,” he said.