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Why Nevada’s Culinary Union isn’t buying Medicare for All

In Nevada, a majority-Latino, majority-female union reflects the changing face of U.S. organized labor and the state's increasingly diverse population. Last year, the union was also the most effective Latino voter turnout operation in the state, where Democrats won up and down the ballot. John Yang reports on what this voting bloc wants to hear from the 2020 candidates.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn now to the Democratic presidential race.

    The state of Nevada is third in line to vote in the primary contest next year. That gives it a key role in picking the Democrats' presidential nominee.

    As John Yang reports, a labor union dominated by women and Latinos could decide the winner.

  • John Yang:

    Susana Loli's quiet neighborhood is eight miles and a world away from the crowds and clamor of the Las Vegas Strip, but 23 years of cleaning hotel rooms there has allowed the Peru native to build a life she's proud of, thanks in large part to her union, Culinary Workers Local 226.

  • Susana Loli:

    I can have a better job, better pay, better health insurance. I have a house and a car. My life has changed. My kids went to the university, and, for me, was the best.

  • John Yang:

    Sixty thousand Nevada hotel and casino workers are represented by the Culinary Union, by far the state's largest and most politically influential.

    The majority-Latino, majority-female union reflects the changing face of U.S. organized labor and Nevada's increasingly diverse population, now nearly 30 percent Latino. The union has negotiated generous employer-paid benefits, including top-tier health insurance.

    More than 140,000 workers and dependents get free care at the union's clinic and pharmacy. Loli has relied on that for her family, and for herself when she needed surgery after an on-the-job injury.

  • Susana Loli:

    I was moving something and pushed with my leg, and I feel something popping. The next day, it was swollen, my knee. And I cannot work like that. It's expensive, thousands of dollars.

  • John Yang:

    And, for you, if you don't work, you don't get paid, right?

  • Susana Loli:

    Yes.

  • John Yang:

    Like Loli, fellow union member Mirtha Rojas also works at a hotel on the Strip and is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

  • Mirtha Rojas:

    I'm from Cuba.

  • John Yang:

    She came to America in 2000 with her daughter, Nancy, who now has a 3-year-old son of her own, Juan.

    Rojas first worked non-union jobs in Las Vegas.

    And what were the differences? What — between the job and what you were getting from you employer at the non-union hotel and what you were getting at the…

  • Mirtha Rojas:

    Very different.

    For example, the health insurance, I need to pay for me, for my daughter, very expensive, every month. So, in the union, don't pay nothing.

  • John Yang:

    Last year, she was part of the union's political organizing, considered the state's most effective Latino voter turnout operation.

    About 250 culinary workers took leave from their jobs ahead of the midterm elections, knocking on some 200,000 doors and registering 10,000 new voters.

  • Mirtha Rojas:

    We got it. We win.

  • John Yang:

    On Election Day, Democrats won up and down the ballot.

  • Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.:

    Our union is a lifeblood of our community.

  • John Yang:

    Including Jacky Rosen, who flipped a red Senate seat to blue. Rosen joined the Culinary Union during a summer in college.

  • Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.:

    The acceptance speeches, everything was at Caesars Palace, and that's where just about 40 years ago I was that summer waitress.

  • John Yang:

    Rojas says she will be back at it next year.

  • Mirtha Rojas:

    Yes, I'm ready.

  • Mirtha Rojas:

    I'm ready, because this is important. We need to stay together.

  • John Yang:

    Nevada's Democratic presidential caucuses in February will be the first big test of the candidates' appeal to Latino voters. And that's why the support of the culinary workers is so coveted.

    Jon Ralston is editor of The Nevada Independent, a nonprofit online news site.

  • Jon Ralston:

    I know it's a cliche, but the Culinary Union is the 800-pound gorilla of Nevada politics. And, by the way, both sides recognize this.

    The Republicans are afraid of what the Culinary can do, and the Democrats want the Culinary to do what it can do.

  • John Yang:

    Former hotel worker Geoconda Arguello-Kline is the top official of Local 226.

  • Geoconda Arguello-Kline:

    The health care issue, for the members, it's number one.

  • John Yang:

    That could be a big problem for Democratic presidential candidates pushing Medicare for all.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    Medical for all, this is our opportunity.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    Medicare to every man, woman and child.

  • John Yang:

    Progressives argue that if health care was out of contract negotiations, unions could press for higher wages. Local 226 members aren't buying it.

  • Geoconda Arguello-Kline:

    I don't think that's the solution for them. I don't think that the members will listen to me about that.

  • Susana Loli:

    No, I want to continue with my health insurance, the same plan. For us, work perfect.

  • Mirtha Rojas:

    I love my health insurance because it's the best. So I want my health insurance.

  • Joseph Biden:

    I'm not going to let anyone, Republican or Democrat, take it away, period.

  • John Yang:

    Moderates like former Vice President Joe Biden oppose Medicare for all.

    It's an issue with organized labor beyond the culinary workers.

  • Jon Ralston:

    Other unions here, like AFSCME and maybe even SEIU, their members love their medical plans.

    I think the prospect of losing that is going to weigh on their minds, especially if another candidate — the most likely one, of course, is Biden, if he sticks around — to keep pointing that out — you could lose your insurance with Warren or Sanders.

  • John Yang:

    While union leaders and rank-and-file members like Rojas and Loli are still deciding which candidate to back, they have a clear message about what it will take to win their support.

  • Susana Loli:

    They have to know about the benefits that we have. We have good health insurance, good pension, good pay. It's very important.

  • Mirtha Rojas:

    We need somebody working together with the union. Immigration is important for me, because, when somebody's coming here, somebody's having dreams.

  • John Yang:

    The faces of what could be crucial support next year, when Nevada helps pick presidential winners and losers.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Las Vegas.

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