Democratic candidates court Culinary Union, the kingmaker of Nevada

Picketers chant at a demonstration organized by the Culinary Union outside the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas.

Picketers chant at a demonstration organized by the Culinary Union outside the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas.

(John Locher / Associated Press)

When Edgar Montano first moved here two years ago, his work at a carwash offered sporadic hours, dismal pay and no job security.

Today, tending to guest rooms at the Luxor, the vast pyramid-shaped hotel on the southern tip of the Las Vegas Strip, his job folding linens and restocking toiletries provides the 21-year-old enough money -- about $17 an hour -- to not only pay rent to his stepmother, but send something back to relatives in Michoacan, Mexico.

Montano, who was born in Los Angeles to parents in the country illegally, credits his good fortune to Culinary Union Local 226, Nevada’s most powerful union. And as he thinks ahead to voting for the first time in a presidential election, he expects to follow the lead of the union that has negotiated job security, healthcare benefits and a paycheck far above the state’s minimum wage.


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“We really are a family,” he said on a recent afternoon, seated in the arid garden of his stepmother’s single-story house. “And the union has taken care of me like my family.”

No wonder that as Democratic presidential hopefuls arrived here this week for their first debate, they also had their eyes on the Culinary Union.

Not only does the union boast the largest membership of any labor organization in Nevada -- 55,000 workers who wax corridors, serve cocktails and prepare food for the roughly 50 million tourists who come to the state each year -- but more than half of its members are Latinos, whose support is critical to a Democrat vying to win the state’s caucuses or to carry the state in a general election.

The union has sometimes endorsed Republicans, as it did last year when it backed Gov. Brian Sandoval for reelection, but it is typically on the Democrats’ side, often to great effect.

“When you have a group of that size willing to put resources into a campaign, it’s powerful,” said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Unlike in some states, “there is no need for a new mobilization effort of Latino voters here in Nevada,” he added. “What they have is consistent and will be there.”


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So far this cycle, the Culinary Union, which is affiliated with the national labor group Unite Here, has not offered an endorsement, although officials say one might come in January, in advance of the Nevada caucuses, scheduled for February. Behind the scenes, campaign aides to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are vying for its support.

Clinton showed up Monday at a union picket line in front of the Trump International Hotel, offering her support for the union. O’Malley joined a similar picket line during the summer. While in Nevada earlier this year, Sanders held a town-hall meeting focused on economics at the union’s headquarters. And Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering a presidential run, met privately in Los Angeles last month with the Culinary Union president.

The quest for union support already appears to have had an impact on the candidates’ positions on at least one issue. Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley have all called for repeal of the “Cadillac tax” in the Affordable Care Act, a 40% levy on certain generous employer-sponsored health coverage plans, which is set to take effect in 2018.

Getting rid of that tax is a prime issue for the Culinary Union and other labor organizations that have negotiated substantial benefit plans for their members. The Culinary Union has been running Spanish-language radio ads in Las Vegas urging Democratic candidates to help push legislation in Congress to repeal the tax.

Passing comprehensive immigration reform is another key issue for the union, whose membership includes workers from more than 160 countries.


“We are no doubt an immigrant union,” said Yvanna Cancela, the union’s political director. “When you’re talking about the Latino vote and immigrant vote in Nevada, you’re really talking about our members and their families.”

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Brenda Flores is from one of those families. She works alongside her mother, Maria, a union member for 21 years, at the Flamingo hotel, where she’s a food and beverage cashier.

Many union members, like Flores and Montano, have family members who they say have been seeking legal status for decades but have been bogged down by an inefficient system.

“You know people who just want to feel secure and safe,” Flores said. “You know, go to work and know that they’ll be able to come home to their families and not be split up.”

Montano has an uncle in Michigan who has been in the country illegally for more than 20 years.


“He works, he wants to contribute to society,” Montano said. “In many ways, he’s an American, he’s lived here so long.”

On a recent weekday, Montano huddled in an air-conditioned office at the union’s headquarters making phone calls with colleagues in an effort to boost turnout for a rally at the Trump hotel. Their mission: target Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman and GOP presidential front-runner, over his immigration policies and his opposition to collective bargaining. None of the workers at the Trump hotel here are unionized.

“They are not serious about where this country is headed,” Montano said of Republicans, dismissing proposals from Trump such as building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Both Flores and Montano said they were likely to back whomever the union endorses in the Democratic primary.

In 2008, Flores voted for then-Sen. Barack Obama after he won the union’s endorsement.

That year, a bitter dispute ensued after the union announced its support. Accusations of voter intimidation led to a lawsuit -- supported by some Clinton allies -- that would have banned caucus sites inside some casinos. Some Obama allies assailed the Clinton campaign, accusing it of trying to disenfranchise Latino voters.

“It got ugly, but when you look back at it, it seems to be in the past, and now the focus is on who will get support this time,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Reno.


Montano, who says he hopes one day to attend college and study political science, also does not think previous intraparty squabbles will affect the 2016 race. The Democratic candidates should focus on talking to union members about issues they care about, he said.

“Politicians should be giving us answers to the issues,” he said. Otherwise, they risk not receiving his union’s support.

“Which could mean losing,” he said.

For more on Campaign 2016, follow @KurtisALee