The Labor Prospect: Harry Reid's Backchannel Turnout Machine in Nevada

(Photo: AP/John Locher)

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid speaks at a Latino get-out-the-caucus event on February 16, in advance of the February 20 Democratic caucus.

Welcome to The American Prospect's weekly roundup highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement.

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson)

GOTCV—Getting out the casino vote

Hillary Clinton won a decisive victory in Nevada on Saturday, quelling concern that her campaign operation in the state had sprung a leak. Her victory also provides critical insight into how she will fare in other states with strong organized labor.

In both Iowa and Nevada, labor unions rolled out major turnout operations with similar results. Clinton won 54 percent of Nevada caucus-goers with at least one union member in their family; Sanders earned 43 percent of that support. In Iowa, Clinton beat Sanders on that front 52 percent to 47 percent.

Some Clinton critics say that her campaign got a crucial boost from a get-out-the-vote ploy. Clinton had been banking on an endorsement from Culinary Local 226, the UNITE HERE union that represents more than 55,000 (mostly Latino) employees at Las Vegas’s hotels and casinos. But the political powerhouse decided to remain on the sidelines, not wanting to wade into the Democratic battle while in the midst of its own tense contract negotiation battle, and after having been burned when the “Cadillac tax,” which would damage the health insurance it has won for its members, was pushed by President Obama, whose candidacy the union backed in 2008.

The Clinton campaign was concerned that tens of thousands of Latino workers wouldn’t turn out for her without the local’s mobilization machine. That is, until Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada stepped in. Last week, Reid (who has yet to endorse a presidential candidate) called up UNITE HERE’s president D. Taylor. In a subsequent interview with The New York Times, Reid said that Taylor had “been extremely cooperative. Probably 100 organizers will be at the caucus sites and in hotels to make sure people know what they’re doing.”

Then, Reid employed his political sway in the state to convince Vegas casino executives to give workers paid time off to attend the caucus on Saturday. It worked. Hundreds of workers showed up to caucus on the strip, and Clinton won all six casino caucus sites—earning Clinton 109 delegates to Sanders’s 52. The turnout ultimately helped Clinton carry Clark County.

“The story of the Nevada caucus is that a lame-duck senator and a self-neutered union conspired to revive the Clinton campaign in a remarkable bit of backroom maneuvering that helped Madame Secretary crush Sanders in Clark County, the key to winning almost any statewide election,” Nevada political columnist John Ralston wrote in a scathing post-caucus column. “Despite their common public neutrality, Taylor and Reid surely believe, as do most Democratic power brokers, that a Sanders nomination would be a disaster. Reid knew that Taylor would get his swarms of organizers to turn out mostly Latino workers, who would likely vote for Clinton.”

Then again, having employers give their workers time off to vote is a goal that Democrats long have sought, and Sanders’s campaign has not raised any objections to Local 226’s GOTV efforts.

The Nevada campaigns did produce their share of back-and-forth allegations from unions. Each campaign accused the other’s union supporters of what might be called candidate cross-dressing. Clinton staffers were said to be impersonating members of National Nurses United, which is Sanders’s strongest union supporter. The union’s executive director, RoseAnn DeMoro, tweeted a picture of Clinton staffers changing their shirts from blue to a red hue similar to the nurses union’s campaign garb. “Photo of Clinton campaign pretending to be [National Nurses United] in Nevada caucus. More deception,” DeMoro tweeted. The union’s leaders said this was an attempt to convince caucus-goers that the nurses supported Clinton, not Sanders. A Clinton aide told TIME that this was all nonsense.

Sanders’s campaign, for its part, was harshly reprimanded by the Culinary Local when its staffers were caught wearing the union’s buttons in order to gain access to employee dining rooms in Vegas hotels and distribute literature.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a major Clinton ally, also took fire for distributing literature that said Clinton was supportive of the Fight for $15’s call for a $15 minimum wage and union rights. However, Clinton has rejected a $15 federal minimum as too high a national standard, opting rather for a $12 federal minimum that would allow states and cities to set a higher rate. Politico asked SEIU if the literature was misleading. “Hillary Clinton was the first candidate who came and met with workers and said she supported our movement,” SEIU’s Nevada state director, Brian Shepard, said. “The fight for $15 is about creating a movement of people to talk about the inequality in America. That’s been the focus of the fight for $15.” Then again, its focus has also been advocating for a $15 minimum wage—which Sanders supports at the federal level—in a range of cities and states.

In an interview with the Prospect before the Iowa caucus, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said, “Our fight is not about a minimum wage; our fight is about a living wage and a union. … For us, Hillary Clinton’s willingness to champion the $15 and union demand for home care, child care, and fast food has been a way to fuel our belief that she can fight, win, and deliver on this broad agenda and that’s how we made our decision. We welcome the skepticism and are willing the engage the debate, because it’s happening inside our union as well as the broader progressive community.”


The AFL-CIO as Switzerland

Just days before the Nevada caucus (and its executive council meeting), AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka released a statement saying that the labor federation will withhold a primary endorsement in 2016. The statement indicated that Clinton still lacked the required two-thirds support of the federation’s unions (each union is assigned a numerical weight in this process equal to the number of its members for whom it pays fees to the federation). If the two biggest unions that have backed Clinton—the National Education Association and SEIU—belonged to the federation, the votes would likely have been there for a Clinton endorsement.

Perhaps as a result of Sanders’s long history of opposition to trade deals, the United Auto Workers and United Steel Workers are among the major unions that have refrained from endorsing Clinton, while National Nurses United, the Communications Workers of American, and the National Postal Workers Union have all endorsed Sanders. The Federation’s decision, or non-decision, is good news for the Sanders campaign, as an AFL-CIO endorsement would have been the final seal of labor’s approval for Clinton and would have unleashed a significant amount of resources on her behalf. 

While Bernie’s supporters say the AFL-CIO’s refusal to endorse is a sign that the labor movement truly is split, a coalition of 20 unions supporting Hillary released a statement saying that support for Clinton within their respective membership rolls is strong. These unions’ leaders pushed back on the notion that there’s significant labor support for Bernie. “The A.F.L.-C.I.O. virtually never endorses in primaries,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told The New York Times. “Because there’s now a story where there should not have been one—certain people in the Bernie camp wanted to take advantage of it—the unions that endorsed Hillary want to make really clear to people that we are incredibly supportive of her.”

As the Times pointed out, however, the AFL-CIO endorsed Walter Mondale in 1983, Al Gore in 1999 and John Kerry in 2004. In 2008, it waited to endorse until Obama essentially had the nomination locked in around June. 

Though the largest labor federation in the country will stay neutral in the primary, it’s already preparing for the general election. As Politico Morning Shift reported, the AFL-CIO is in the early stages of forming a super PAC that could reportedly require a $1 million contribution from participating unions. Notably, the super PAC will include non-member unions like SEIU, and will be able to spend unlimited amounts of money to support the Democratic nominee in the general election.  



As Josh Eidelson reports for Bloomberg Business, Walmart is the target of a lawsuit that argues the company violated the Civil Rights Act because its refusal to extend health benefits to same-sex couples is a form of gender discrimination.

Meanwhile, Walmart is rolling out a more flexible scheduling system for its workers, likely in response to persistent pressure from worker advocates.

Lydia DePillis reports for The Washington Post on how West Virginia, once a bastion of unionized labor, fell hard and fast—most recently passing right-to-work legislation and repealing its prevailing wage law.

An Associated Press investigation finds that the National Right to Work Committee likely violated campaign-finance law when it illegally coordinated with candidates in 2010 elections across five states—Montana, Nevada, Kentucky, Iowa, and Indiana.

Uber is reportedly using its customer service representatives to pitch to drivers why a union “wouldn’t make sense.”

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