An influential Nevada labor union’s negative characterization of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s “Medicare for All” health care plan escalated into a political food fight on Wednesday after the union accused his supporters of “viciously” attacking the union and its members, and three of Sanders’s rivals expressed support for the union in the face of those complaints.
The controversy stems from the Culinary Workers Union’s warning on a voter education flyer distributed to its 60,000 members ― casino and hotel workers across Nevada ― that Sanders’s plan to enact single-payer health care would “end Culinary Healthcare,” as the union’s high-quality insurance is known. The message, first reported by The Nevada Independent on Tuesday night, reflects the concerns of union leaders about the fate of health care plans they fought for through decades of collective bargaining, as well as a determination to demonstrate their value to members in a “right-to-work” state where workers are not required to pay union dues. (Some critics suspected the flyer had more to do with the union’s ties to leading figures in the Democratic establishment, including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.)
The unfavorable voter education program is liable to hurt Sanders’s chances with an influential constituency ahead of the Nevada Democratic caucus on Feb. 22.
So Sanders supporters ― and proponents of Medicare for All more broadly ― treated it as a political attack. They immediately reacted with outrage, arguing that the flyers misrepresented Sanders’s plan, which promises more generous health care and the opportunity for unions to obtain new concessions at the bargaining table in exchange for the health care they earned through negotiation.
Some of those supporters directed their invective at the union with mean-spirited, profane and, at times, racist and sexist language, according to the union.
Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the union, told HuffPost she has received roughly a dozen calls an hour since 6 a.m. PST from angry Sanders supporters, who found her contact information online. Some of the callers made hateful remarks about the gender and heritage of union members, who are largely female and from immigrant communities.
Khan shared with HuffPost one of the nastier emails the union received, claiming it was one of many the union had gotten that day. In it, a self-described Sanders supporter issued a vague threat of violence.
Wednesday afternoon, the union went public with its dismay at the reaction to its voter education program. In a statement, union President Geoconda Argüello-Kline defended the flyer on the grounds that it simply articulated the union’s investment in a health care plan that its members “have built, sacrificed for, and went on strike for 6 years, 4 months, and 10 days to protect.”
“It’s disappointing that Senator Sanders’ supporters have viciously attacked the Culinary Union and working families in Nevada simply because our union has provided facts on what certain healthcare proposals might do to take away the system of care we have built over 8 decades,” Argüello-Kline said.
“We have always stood up for what we believe in and will continue to do so,” she added. “The Culinary Union has faced some of the toughest companies who wanted to break our union, and even the President of the United States Donald Trump ― and won.”
Even before Argüello-Kline’s comments, Sanders’s competitors sensed an opportunity with a union whose legendary turnout operation helped Nevada stay in the Democratic column in the 2016 presidential election. On Wednesday morning, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg tweeted a not-so-subtle reminder to Nevada union members that his “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan protects “union members’ freedom to choose the coverage that’s best for them.”
After Argüello-Kline’s public statement, though, the flood gates opened. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and former Vice President Joe Biden all tweeted their support for the Culinary Workers Union’s members. (Buttigieg joined them on Thursday morning with a Twitter message of support in Spanish and English.)
Biden went first, tweeting that he stands “with the working men and women of [the Culinary Union] because supporting labor means supporting our unions.”
But the remarks from Warren, who has at once cast herself as a unity candidate and begun to more explicitly contrast herself with Sanders, were notable.
“No one should attack [the Culinary Union] and its members for fighting hard for themselves and their families,” she tweeted. “Like them, I want to see every American get high-quality and affordable health care — and I’m committed to working with them to achieve that goal.”
Warren’s statement reflects the degree to which she has distanced herself from the Sanders plan since signing onto his legislation in 2017 and stating at the first Democratic presidential debate in June that she was “with Bernie” on Medicare for All.
Under pressure this fall, she broke her Medicare for All plan into two stages, promising to introduce the transition off of private coverage by her third year in office and only after passing a public option in a separate bill. Sanders, by contrast, vows to introduce his Medicare for All bill, which transitions all Americans onto a single, public program over a four-year period, within weeks of taking office.
Warren’s decision to moderate the pace of her Medicare for All plan’s timeline ― a deliberate effort to appeal to Democratic constituencies like the Culinary Union ― has not yet made a difference in the polls. She finished fourth in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
But it does appear to have won her slightly more favorable treatment from the Culinary Union. While the union told its members that Sanders will “end” its health care plan and “require” Medicare for All, the union told members that Warren would “replace Culinary Healthcare after 3-year transition or at the end of collective bargaining agreements.”
Sanders responded to the dust-up on Thursday with a tweet of support for the Culinary Union in its fight for a “fair contract” for workers it represents at Valley Hospital in Las Vegas. The message did not directly address the scuffle over health care, but the implication was clear: Sanders’ long history of standing with unions locked in contentious organizing and contract fights is a better indication of his solidarity with Culinary members than any disagreement over policy.
The most recent poll conducted in Nevada shows Biden with a modest lead. But the state has not been surveyed since mid-January, and Sanders enjoys new momentum after a narrow win in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday that sealed his status as a front-runner in a crowded field.
It is unclear whether complaints about the conduct of Sanders’s base of supporters will resonate in Nevada. Sanders instructed his supporters to engage rivals with civility shortly after launching his second presidential bid in February 2019, though complaints have surfaced about some of his partisans’ vitriol on social media again this election cycle.
His supporters counter that the Vermont senator’s establishment critics exaggerate the extent of noxious behavior in their ranks in an effort to discredit Sanders and his policies.