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The Culinary Workers Union, Medicare For All, and the Latest Cynical Attack On Bernie Sanders

During the 2016 election, a false news story about supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders throwing chairs at the Nevada Democratic Party convention spread. Jon Ralston, who has covered politics in the state for decades, pushed the story.

Now, a few days before early voting in the Nevada caucuses, Ralston appears to be at it again. He founded The Nevada Independent in 2017, and the publication is fueling a cynical attack against Sanders and his campaign that involves the Culinary Workers Union (CWU).

Ralston will be one of the moderators for the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 19.

CWU has trustees, who administer a Culinary Health Fund (CWF) that has contracts with interests which benefit from the for-profit healthcare system. They put out a flyer on 2020 presidential candidates that said Sanders would “End Culinary Healthcare,” “require ‘Medicare For All,’” and “lower drug prices.”

Megan Messerly, a politics reporter for The Nevada Independent, wrote a post about the flyer that appeared online around the time Sanders won the New Hampshire primary. It was practically a press release for the flyer from the leadership of CWU.

The post did not outline any details related to the CHF, who or what companies benefit from contracts, and what incentives the union leadership may have to oppose a transition to Medicare For All.

Predictably, the post provoked outrage and led several Sanders supporters to call, email, and tweet their anger at CWU. The response from supporters led union leadership to condemn Sanders supporters.

“It’s disappointing that Senator Sanders’ supporters have viciously attacked the Culinary Union and working families in Nevada simply because our union provided facts on what certain healthcare proposals might do to take away the system of care we have built over eight decades,” stated Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the secretary-treasurer for the union.

Argüello-Kline did not highlight any specific calls or messages in the statement so it is unclear what was so “vicious.” Notably, Argüello-Kline did not claim anyone threatened to commit violence.

Days later, CWU announced it would not endorse any presidential candidate during the primary.

Jon Ralston’s History Of Pushing Cynical Stories

Ralston has a history of pushing cynical stories like this in order to undermine candidates or boost particular campaigns.

In 2014, Watchdog.org revealed Ralston “used his television show and blog to slam Republican attorney general candidate Adam Laxalt.” He boasted of the impact his reporting had on Laxalt’s campaign yet failed to disclose his ties to Laxalt’s Democratic opponent.

Two years later, MSNBC, CBS, the Associated Press, and the New York Times all spread a false claim from Ralston about Sanders supporters throwing chairs. “Convention ended w/security shutting it down, Bernie folks rushed stage, yelling obscenities, throwing chairs. Unity Now! On to Philly 2/2,” Ralston tweeted.

He also declared., “Hey, Berniebot chair-throwing truthers: It happened. People saw it, including one journalist who was there and reported it.”

Additionallly, Ralston spun a narrative around Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid that involved a phone call Reid reportedly made to the head of CWU to ensure workers made it to the caucuses to vote for Hillary Clinton. Supposedly, Reid convinced bosses to let employees off work to participate in caucuses at six casino sites.

But Jeff Weaver, who was the campaign manager for Sanders in 2016, challenged whether this occurred in his 2018 book, “How Bernie Won: Inside the Revolution That’s Taking Back Our County—And Where To Go From Here.”

“The problem with Ralston’s claim is that increasing the number of participants alone in these locations would not have benefited Clinton, because the number of county convention delegates allocated to each site was set prior to the caucuses. The only way to ensure victory is to change the proportion of the people in the room who support each candidate,” Weaver contended.

He added, “In other words, you would have to pack the room with Clinton supporters. Did that happen? Online video did circulate that shows people streaming into at least one casino caucus location without checking in so it is certainly possible that there were shenanigans. But that [was] not Ralston’s claim. In the end, it is difficult to know how accurate Ralston’s narrative is.”

Around three weeks before the Nevada caucuses in 2016, Ralston “reported” that “operatives from Bernie Sanders’ campaign [had] donned Culinary union pins and secured access to employee areas inside [Las Vegas] Strip hotels to try to garner votes for the February 20 caucus,” according to “sources.”

A headline at his personal website read, “Sanders workers are masquerading as Culinary members to campaign inside hotels.”

Argüello-Kline “confirmed” the reports of Sanders’ staffers “attempting and gaining access to employee dining rooms.” She said the union was “disappointed and offended,” and added, “It’s completely inappropriate for any campaign to attempt to mislead Culinary Union members, especially at their place of work.”

Clinton aide and Center for American Progress (CAP) director Neera Tanden gleefully shared a link from CAP’s Think Progress website, where the story from Ralston was boosted. “See we are not always bad!” (Argüello-Kline is a member of CAP’s Advisory Board.)

Jennifer Palmieri, who was the Clinton campaign’s communications director, replied, “It’s great!”

CNN followed-up on the report. Weaver maintained that no staffers “ever misrepresented who they were.” In fact, Sanders staffers wore CWU’s button “in solidarity with people” in the union. They also wore “Bernie paraphernalia.”

Emilia Pablo, who was the Nevada communications director for Sanders, was stunned by CWU’s response. “It is surprising because we have been building a positive relationship with them from the moment that we go to the ground. We have always thought we have had a positive relationship with them and for them to come out so strongly against us and to go to the press first, that surprises me.”

CWU’s ‘Inherent Conflict Of Interest’

As Dan Rolle, a democratic socialist who supports Sanders, highlighted, leaders of CWU have an “inherent conflict of interest.” They oversee the CHF, a multi-employer Taft-Hartley Fund supported through collective bargaining agreements.

Employer trustees for the CHF include executives from Boyd Gaming, Caesars Palace, Hilton Worldwide, Hostmark Hospitality Group, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, The Mirage, Sodexo, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Tishman Hotel Corporation, and Geneva HRM Advisors, which is involved in corporate labor relations.

Notably, Ralston and the Nevada Independent has received $957,500 from MGM Resorts International, which owns The Mirage, $145,000 from Caesars Enterprise Services LLC, $31,500 from Boyd Gaming, and $7,500 from Caesars Entertainment.

These employers have an incentive to preserve the CHF because it means contract negotiations remain focused on health care and limit the leverage union workers may have to demand better pensions, higher wages, and improved workplace conditions that could undercut a corporation’s bottom line.

Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) was contracted to provide health care to the union’s “55,000 members and their 70,000 dependents in the Las Vegas area” in 2018. That same year, CEO Thomas Jackiewicz touted the for-profit company’s embrace of “bundled payments” for surgery patients.

Bundled payments are a fad in the industry, but there is little evidence that this reduces costs. A study by the Commonwealth Fund of Medicare’s bundled payment program found “hospitals participating in Medicare’s most recent bundled payment initiative did not have lower costs or other better outcomes compared with hospitals not participating.”

Taft-Hartley plans were jeopardized by the passage of the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama. D. Taylor, who was the leader of CWU, and two other major union leaders signed on to a letter in 2013 that warned it would “destroy the foundation of the 40-hour work week that is the backbone of the American middle class.”

“Millions of Americans are covered by non-profit health insurance plans like the ones in which most of our members participate,” the union leaders wrote. “These non-profit plans are governed jointly by unions and companies under the Taft-Hartley Act.”

They continued, “Our health plans have been built over decades by working men and women. Under the ACA as interpreted by the Administration, our employees will be treated differently and not be eligible for subsidies afforded other citizens. As such, many employees will be relegated to second-class status and shut out of the help the law offers to for-profit insurance plans.”

Minutes from an Assembly Committee of Health and Human Services hearing in 2017 reflects one key problem the CHF has when it comes to negotiating with hospitals.

Kathy Silver, president of the CHF, testified [PDF], “Either we negotiate from the point of view that we are going to be at a deficit because patients are going to show up at an ER or trauma center whether we are contracted with that hospital or not. We have no control over that, and the patient has no control over that. Or, we negotiate assuming the patient could wind up in a hospital that is contracted but see a physician who is not contracted.”

“It requires a delicate balance—trying to find the right way to negotiate, keep hospitals in network, keep doctors in network, and not put our patients at risk for extreme medical losses,” Silver added.

Inspiring Divide-And-Conquer Attacks From Sanders Opponents

Former Vice President Joe Biden, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Senator Elizabeth Warren all piled on Sanders. In particular, Buttigieg seized the moment to promote his “Medicare For All Who Want It” plan, which according to the Washington Post hinges upon a “supercharged” version of the deeply unpopular mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

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

Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, objected strongly to how Buttigieg used this as a wedge issue.

“This is offensive and dangerous. Stop perpetuating this gross myth,” Nelson demanded. “Not every union member has union healthcare plans that protect them. Those that do have it have to fight like hell to keep it. If you believe in labor, then you’d understand an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Nelson spoke with Common Dreams staff writer Eoin Higgins. “This is age-old divide and conquer tactics, and we have to call it out and reject the attempts to distract us. Anytime the word ‘they’ is used with workers, it’s a sign of union-busters at work.”

For what it’s worth, the Sanders campaign attempted to rise above the fray and avoid fueling the cynicism around this flyer.

On MSNBC’s “All In” with Chris Hayes, Sanders suggested union workers, including those in UNITE HERE, understand why Medicare For All is needed. “If you talk to union negotiators, they will tell you they spend half of their time arguing against the cutbacks for the health care that they have. They’re losing wage increases because the cost of health care is soaring.” (CWU is part of UNITE HERE.)

The culinary union is fighting for a fair contract from Universal Health Services, the parent company of Valley Hospital in Las Vegas. Sanders expressed solidarity.

“I stand with [the Culinary Workers] fighting for health care, a pension, and fair wages. Making $780 million in profit, UHS Inc. is one of the largest, most profitable hospital corporations in the country. They must put aside their greed, come to the table, and negotiate a fair contract,” he said.

Earlier in the week, senior Sanders adviser Chuck Rocha indicated the campaign has been directly calling members of CWU at their homes, “talking to them at their work sites, and sending them mail.” They have sent “hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail to culinary workers, who are Latino in Nevada.”

The campaign claimed to have huge support among rank-and-file members. Not long after, the flyer signed off on by union leadership appeared and Ralston’s publication was responsible for the latest cynical story in a long line of cynical stories intended to make Sanders seem toxic to voters, especially minorities.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."