Next Saturday (22 February) voters in Nevada will participate in caucuses to choose their 48 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Early voting has already begun. According to the latest poll, Sanders has a 7 point lead over Biden, with no other candidates reaching the 15% threshold required to win delegates. This represents a major shift, as Biden had been leading in all the polls in Nevada up until very recently.
A Sanders victory in Nevada would represent more than just a hat trick, following his victories in the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. It would mean that he has demonstrated that he, unlike some of the other candidates, can do well in a state with a large immigrant and Latino population.
That’s one thing to know about Nevada, but the other is perhaps more important: this is a state with powerful and influential trade unions. As trade union density in the private sector in America has declined over decades, unions have managed keep a foothold in the casinos, hotels and restaurants of Las Vegas and Reno. This gives Sanders an opportunity to demonstrate his strength among the organised working class.
Back in 2016, the little-known Sanders fought Hillary Clinton to a near-tie in Nevada. Today, as the front-runner in national polls, faced by a weak and divided opposition, Nevada is Bernie Sanders’ state to lose. Sanders’ rivals who emerged strongest from the New Hampshire primary, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, are barely registering at 10% in the polls. If Biden continues to fall in the polls, a possible result in Nevada is that none of the other candidates receive 15%. Were that unlikely scenario to occur, Sanders would walk away with all the delegates.
But Sanders has run into an unforeseen obstacle on the road to victory in Nevada: the powerful Culinary Workers Union, Local 226 of UNITE-HERE. That union claims 60,000 members in the state, and represents nearly a quarter of the entire national membership of the union.
In a flyer produced in English and Spanish only a few days before the voting begins, the union branded Sanders’ health care plan (Medicare for All) a disaster for union members. The argument ran something like this: our union worked long and hard to get our members great health care; Sanders’ plan means the end of all that, as the government steps in to take over.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, there were reports that some Sanders supporters went online to trash the union leaders (who are women), and not always politely. Sanders himself would have none of it, and praised the union for its great work over the years.
At least the union didn’t then go on to endorse anyone else. That leaves open the possibility that many of its members, the majority of them being Latinos, will go on to vote for the candidate who best represents their interests, Bernie Sanders.
At the moment, there seems little danger that the attack by the Culinary Workers Union will cost Sanders Nevada. He still seems on track to win. But the risk is that the arguments the union made will resonate with other trade unionists, and that members of unions like the United Auto Workers in states like Michigan may also feel that Sanders’ proposed “government takeover” will mean the end of their negotiated private health care plans.
The Sanders campaign needs to make the case not only that health care is a human right, but that the only way to ensure that all Americans have decent health care is through his Medicare for All plan.
In Nevada next weekend, we will learn if that case was made well.
This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.