“I Would Love Medicare for All”: A Nevada Culinary Union Member on Why She Supports Bernie Sanders

While the powerful Culinary Workers Union in Nevada is attacking Sanders’ universal healthcare plan, a rank-and-file worker says “a lot of members want Bernie” and support Medicare for All.

Rebecca Burns February 18, 2020

Bernie Sanders leads the 2020 field in union endorsements. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders is lead­ing in the Neva­da polls, but he faces a major obsta­cle: One of the most pow­er­ful actors in state pol­i­tics has come out swing­ing against his sig­na­ture pro­pos­al — Medicare for All. 

"I think capitalism is the reason that they’re coming out against Medicare for All, and it’s just really troubling."

The 60,000-member Culi­nary Work­ers Union announced last Thurs­day that it will remain neu­tral in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry this year. But in the past week, the union has sent out a series of com­mu­ni­ca­tions to mem­bers warn­ing, both direct­ly and indi­rect­ly, that Sanders’ plan threat­ens its hard-won health­care benefits. 

One fly­er cir­cu­lat­ed by the union read, Some politi­cians promise … You will get more mon­ey for wages from the com­pa­ny if you give up Culi­nary Health Insur­ance.’ These politi­cians have nev­er sat at our bar­gain­ing table … We will not hand over our health­care for promises.”

Sanders’ oppo­nents have seized on the open­ing to dou­ble down on argu­ments for pre­serv­ing pri­vate health insur­ance — a posi­tion the union shares. 

There are 14 mil­lion union work­ers in Amer­i­ca who have fought hard for strong, employ­er-pro­vid­ed health ben­e­fits,” tweet­ed for­mer South Bend May­or Pete Buttigieg. Medicare for All Who Want It pro­tects their plans and union mem­bers’ free­dom to choose the cov­er­age that’s best for them.”

Bil­lion­aire Tom Stey­er, mean­while, has start­ed air­ing an ad in Neva­da telling vot­ers that unions don’t like” Sanders’ health­care plan. 

Known nation­al­ly as a stan­dard-bear­er for mil­i­tant work­place orga­niz­ing, the Culi­nary Union hasn’t just won health­care ben­e­fits — it runs its own 24-hour health­care cen­ter and phar­ma­cy, exclu­sive­ly for members.

But some mem­bers are dis­il­lu­sioned that the union is flex­ing its mus­cle against a health­care pol­i­cy they believe could deliv­er a wind­fall to unions by free­ing them to focus on oth­er issues at the bar­gain­ing table. 

In These Times spoke to Mar­cie Wells, a shop stew­ard with Culi­nary Work­ers 226 who has worked at Jim­my Buffet’s Mar­gar­i­taville inside the Flamin­go Hotel and Casi­no for 16 years. Wells dis­cussed Medicare for All, the union’s endorse­ment deci­sion and her sup­port for Bernie Sanders. 

There was a lot of spec­u­la­tion as to whether the union might still endorse Joe Biden. What was your reac­tion to the deci­sion not to endorse any­one in the primary? 

[Union lead­ers] said ear­ly on that they were not sure if they were going to endorse. When they called this press con­fer­ence, every­one expect­ed that they were going to go ahead and endorse Biden, because they already said they weren’t endors­ing. So why would you put togeth­er all that just to repeat yourself? 

The lit­er­a­ture they put out the night before was not so sub­tle. It had the words one, two, three,” and three can­di­dates in order [Editor’s note: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are list­ed first on the fly­er]. Every­one knows in the cau­cus, you rank your top three choic­es. But they’re not offi­cial­ly endorsing. 

I think it sends mixed sig­nals, and it’s dis­ap­point­ing that they’re not being straightforward. 

Did the union poll mem­bers about the endorsement?

No, they didn’t. Typ­i­cal­ly, I get called for those types of things, because I’m a shop steward. 

Talk­ing one-on-one, a lot of mem­bers want Bernie. But when we’re in the set­ting of city­wide meet­ings or things that are exclu­sive to shop stew­ards, there’s a clear mes­sage that, the per­son who wants Medicare for All wants to take away our hard work.” 

It’s dis­ap­point­ing as a progressive.

At a town hall the union held with Sanders in Decem­ber, some mem­bers heck­led over the issue of health­care. Can you describe what you saw happen?

At this type of event, all the ques­tions are planned. When Bernie start­ed talk­ing about health­care, almost on cue, a group start­ed chant­i­ng, Union health­care! Union healthcare!” 

When a speak­er said, I don’t want to give up my insur­ance,” I yelled back, I do!” 

But aside from what felt like a staged protest, Bernie got a great recep­tion, peo­ple were cheer­ing. I mean, he’s the frickin’ union guy. 

The culi­nary union has the rep­u­ta­tion of hav­ing some of the best health­care in Las Vegas. How well does it work for you?

Rel­a­tive­ly speak­ing, it is some of the best. But it doesn’t work well for me, because I have chron­ic ill­ness. I have anky­los­ing spondyli­tis and bilat­er­al uveitis that’s recur­ring. I’ve had this con­di­tion since high school, and I’ve been mis­di­ag­nosed, delayed diag­nosed, not believed as a Black woman, told that I was exag­ger­at­ing my symptoms. 

Most recent­ly, my eyes were so inflamed that my eye doc­tor called a rheuma­tol­o­gist in the Culi­nary net­work, and she wasn’t going to be able to see me for 7 months. I had to do a GoFundMe to pay for a doc­tor out­side of my net­work so I could not go blind. 

I don’t think the pri­vate insur­ance mar­ket is good for peo­ple with chron­ic ill­ness­es, and I think it’s pret­ty ableist to pre­tend that it is. If I’m wait­ing 8 months to see a spe­cial­ist but I’m hav­ing symp­toms through­out that time, nine times out of 10 I’m going to get fired for miss­ing work. And to even start get­ting that insur­ance in the first place, you have to work 360 hours with­in a cer­tain time frame. 

There’s also a copay every time I go to a spe­cial­ist. More like­ly than not, I’ll skip some­thing most months. I would love Medicare for All right about now. 

Why do you think the union has come out so strong­ly against Medicare for All?

I think there’s a con­flict of inter­est there. We have a labor union, and a polit­i­cal lob­by with a PAC, and a health­care busi­ness, all wrapped up in one. 

They built the Culi­nary Health Cen­ter, so that’s theirs. Word on the street is they’ve already paid for the par­cel of land to build the next one. So they’re in the busi­ness now — they’re the estab­lish­ment to an extent. So I think cap­i­tal­ism is the rea­son that they’re com­ing out against Medicare for All, and it’s just real­ly troubling. 

Nevada’s unin­sured rate is 14%, and there are big racial dis­par­i­ties in who doesn’t have insur­ance — in Neva­da it’s indige­nous peo­ple, Black peo­ple, Lati­no peo­ple. Medicare for All is a racial jus­tice issue. For the union to have an 80% demo­graph­ic of [peo­ple of col­or] and be pulling this, it’s just unbe­liev­able. I’m disgusted. 

Do you think the mes­sag­ing against Medicare for All will impact how mem­bers vote in the primary?

That’s what’s shit­ty about this whole thing. Some of these peo­ple are going to vote against their best inter­est because they trust­ed the Culi­nary Union.

But a lot of mem­bers do want Bernie. The younger mem­bers, the mem­bers whose young kids are get­ting them involved. I think I flipped a dish­wash­er the oth­er day. So we’re all doing our best, but it’s just dis­heart­en­ing that we’re fight­ing against both the GOP and the union.

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Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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