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Anatomy of a political breakup: Why the Culinary Union unendorsed Democratic lawmakers

While the union has diverged from Democrats on other issues, recent tensions stem from the repeal of a 2020 COVID-era law that mandated frequent room cleaning.
Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
Election 2024
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Without the help of the Culinary Union Workers Local 226, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) might not be in the Senate. 

The union in 2022 worked closely with the state’s Democratic political organizing framework (dubbed the “Reid Machine” for its connections to the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)) to organize and deliver a narrow victory for Cortez Masto in an unfavorable midterm election year “under the most adverse circumstances it has ever faced.”

The union’s canvassing efforts and transportation of workers to the polls also supported down-ballot victories for several vulnerable Democratic constitutional office candidates, aided the state’s three House Democrats in keeping their swing seats and helped Democrats expand their legislative majorities.

Some 18 months after those 2022 victories, the relationship between some Democrats and the union, which represents more than 60,000 workers in Reno and Las Vegas, has soured.

In March, the Culinary endorsed two candidates to run against lawmakers backed by the Democratic caucuses. And last week, the union unendorsed every sitting Democratic lawmaker who voted in favor of a 2023 resort industry-backed bill removing pandemic-imposed cleaning requirements from state law — drawing a bright-red line through 18 names on the union’s endorsement scorecard.

In an interview Thursday with The Nevada Independent, Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Ted Pappageorge said those legislative Democrats sided with Republicans on an issue that affects working-class voters. He said the union is advocating for “better Democrats.”

“Folks have to remember that politicians are not royalty, and we've got too many lawyers and management types there,” Pappageorge said. “I think that our members deserve to know whether Democrats are going to stand by working-class voters or not, and in this case, the Democrats — other than a very few — let us down.” 

Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) said in a statement that since he began serving in 2016, Legislative Democrats have passed pro-labor measures ranging from raising the minimum wage to strengthening collective bargaining laws, including prevailing wage and project labor agreements.

“As long as I am Speaker of the Assembly, I will continue to advocate for working families and make the best decisions for Nevada as a whole,” Yeager said. “It's pretty straightforward. Any other sort of complicated story is just noise.”

A statement provided by the Senate Democratic Caucus cited the party’s legislative record of working with organized labor. 

“We're proud to run on our members' pro-labor records, and we're confident voters will understand who the pro-labor candidates are this election cycle,” the statement said.

Nevada’s labor movement is not monolithic — a group of state police unions backed former President Donald Trump in 2020, and this cycle, several unions have split endorsements in several key Democratic legislative primaries.

But in publicly unendorsing more than a dozen legislative Democrats, the Culinary stands alone, especially as other unions have largely backed incumbents or caucus-backed candidates. 

How did Nevada Democrats’ closest ally become a vocal critic of legislative Democrats ahead of the June 11 primary? What is the union trying to accomplish, and will this have any effect on other high-profile races on the Nevada ballot, including for president and U.S. Senate?

Is this a breakup, or just a break?

Sen Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV) speaks to members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 on Jan. 3, 2024. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Room cleaning required by law 

Roots of the current conflict between the union and Democratic lawmakers go back to a 2020 special session, when lawmakers passed a complex and contentious bill (SB4) that shielded many major businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits while also establishing protections for casino industry workers, outlining enhanced cleaning policies for large casino-resort companies, including a requirement that cleanings happen daily.

The protections and cleaning requirements were championed by the Culinary Union in memory of Adolfo Fernandez, a Caesars Palace utility porter and union member, who died after contracting the virus earlier that summer.

But the bill’s passage was the result of a deal between casinos, business groups and the Culinary Union at the expense of other powerful groups, including trial attorneys, progressive groups and others who felt they were unfairly excluded from the bill’s liability protections.

Almost a year later, the union pushed the Legislature for a “Right to Return” bill that would give casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related workers in Nevada the right to return to jobs they had been laid off from during the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) carried the bill for the union, invoking her parents, who were Culinary members, in a hearing.

As part of the deal to enact the law, which passed on party-line votes in the Senate and Assembly with Republicans in opposition, lawmakers made revisions to SB4 that relaxed cleaning requirements, such as wiping down minibars, headboards and decorative items on beds, and reduced a requirement to clean rooms throughout the day to just a single daily cleaning.

As the end of the COVID public health emergency wound down, a stream of resort industry executives, business leaders and health district representatives said SB4’s meticulously prescriptive rules were no longer applicable. Fresh off the 2022 election, state lawmakers in the 2023 session brought a measure (SB441) that included removing civil liability protections, inspection requirements for health districts and daily room cleaning.

“[SB4] worked then but it doesn’t work now,” Sen. Marilyn Dondero-Loop (D-Las Vegas) said in a hearing.

A source familiar with negotiations around the measure said that when SB4 was passed in the special session, both provisions of the bill, such as daily room cleaning, were intended to sunset once the pandemic ended. Supporters’ reasoning for backing SB441 was that the immunity went away once the governor's declaration of emergency went away, but because of changes to how COVID testing happened, the daily room cleaning portion of the bill never sunsetted.

The bill passed with wide Democratic support despite vigorous opposition from the Culinary Union, which said that daily room cleaning “was standard practice” in Las Vegas before the pandemic and that was “good policy.” 

The Culinary Union is not alone in its fight to protect daily room cleaning. At the beginning of the pandemic, hotel guests often declined daily cleaning services, and some companies switched to cleaning upon request rather than automatically. Since then, hotel workers across the country have pushed for room cleaning requirements, emphasizing that “clean hotel rooms save jobs.”

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro addresses media during a joint press conference with Assembly Speaker Designate Steve Yeager following Governor Joe Lombardo's first State of the State at the Legislature on Jan. 23, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Culinary unendorses candidates

The Culinary Union made daily room cleaning part of the five-year contract negotiations with major Las Vegas resorts that began in earnest after the legislative session. The new contracts include provisions similar to the language repealed by SB441.

Still, Pappageorge said the issue “hamstrung” the union in negotiations. He said if Democrats had not removed the law, union members wouldn’t have had to make it a strike issue and could have instead negotiated for other priorities, such as a larger wage increase. After negotiations, the union achieved a 32 percent salary raise over the next five years.

Pappageorge said that ending daily room cleaning directly affected union members, leading to a 30 percent reduction in work and a 30 percent potential reduction in income for those workers. He criticized Democratic lawmakers for prioritizing the casino industry.

He added the unendorsements and callouts are a way for voters to understand that they need to pick better Democratic representatives in the primary. He said the union is backing two candidates, Geoconda Hughes for Sen. Rochelle Nguyen’s (D-Las Vegas) Senate District 3 seat, and union leader and server Linda Hunt in Assembly District 17, as examples of offering voters “an opportunity to choose better Democrats.” Hughes is the daughter of former Culinary Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline.

“It's our job to represent workers and our members and they need to know when Democrats decide they're going to team up with rich casinos, and screw workers,” Pappageorge said. “It's pretty straightforward. And any other sort of complicated story is just noise.”

The Senate Democratic Caucus’ statement noted that in past sessions, Democrats worked with labor groups to pass a major expansion of collective bargaining rights for public employees, fund significant raises for home care workers and educators, ensure union labor is used on major infrastructure and construction projects, and guaranteed hospitality industry employees affected by COVID could return to their jobs. 

Asked if the primary will be a referendum on the power of the Culinary Union over the Democratic caucuses, Pappageorge said, “We don’t look at it that way at all.”

Secretary-Treasurer for Culinary Union Ted Pappageorge speaks at the launch of a rent control ballot initiative at John Wilhelm Big Hall in Las Vegas on May 18, 2022. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Other tension points

It’s not the only major issue on which the union has broken with Democrats.

The Culinary Union, which provides members with a union-backed health insurance plan and offers urgent care and medical service centers in Las Vegas, has opposed sweeping reforms proposed by progressives at the federal level, such as Medicare for All, because it views its benefits as hard-fought and beneficial to its members. At a more local level, the union also sometimes aligns with private health insurance companies on health care legislative measures.

It’s an issue that has come up in the Senate District 3 Democratic primary, where the Culinary-backed Hughes is trying to unseat Nguyen. 

In her first campaign ad, Nguyen referenced AB250, a bill that would have seen Nevada piggyback off a provision in the federal Inflation Reduction Act — which allowed Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs beginning in 2026 — by applying those price caps statewide, not just to those on Medicare. Gov. Joe Lombardo ultimately vetoed the bill.

In a hearing, Culinary officials testified that it opposed the legislation. Union representatives instead wanted the bill to be introduced in the 2025 session (closer to when the federal drug pricing negotiations begin) and for a more collaborative process. 

Legislative Democrats have nonetheless made lowering prescription drug prices an emphasis of their campaign this cycle. 

Pappageorge said that the union's unendorsements have nothing to do with health care policies, and that Culinary has advocated for broader health care issues including transparency on drug pricing and against surprise billing. When an issue affects members directly, the union (which operates its own pharmacy through its health plan for members) will stand up for them, he said.

Culinary did not leave the 2023 legislative session empty-handed. It received a $25 million appropriation from state lawmakers for the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, and it supported passage of a bill to publicly finance construction of a baseball stadium to bring Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics to Las Vegas. As part of an agreement with the A’s, the Culinary Union will have the right to organize and negotiate union contracts for stadium workers. 

The Legislature also passed housing measures the union advocated for, such as transparency around rental application fees and eviction reforms, which were later vetoed by Lombardo.

Pappageorge said other legislative successes are separate from what happened with the removal of the daily room cleaning requirement.

“We thought we had a partnership with some of these Democrats, and it turns out we did not,” he said. “They need to be clear that when you go after workers … there's consequences.”

Culinary Secretary-Treasurer Ted Pappageorge speaks during a union a march on Las Vegas Boulevard on June 29, 2023. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police estimated 3,500 workers participated in the push for a new contract. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The ‘Culinary Machine’

Well-liked by her colleagues, Nguyen is getting assists from high-power groups — including the casinos she voted with and other unions — as Culinary attempts to boot her from office.

The day after Culinary announced it was unendorsing lawmakers who had voted for SB441,  American Federation of State County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 4041 — which represents 17,000 state workers — endorsed Democratic incumbent lawmakers and caucus-backed candidates, including Cannizzaro, Nguyen and Yeager.

AFSCME isn’t alone.

Nguyen also has support from the Clark County Education Association and the Las Vegas branches of the Service Employees International Union, Laborers Union (which represents construction workers) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The Nevada State AFL-CIO, the state federation of labor representing more than 150,000 members from some 120 unions throughout Nevada, including the Culinary Union, notably did not endorse either Nguyen or Hughes. It did endorse Hunt, who is running against the Democratic Assembly Caucus-backed candidate, Mishon Montgomery. The union did not respond to an emailed request to discuss its endorsement process on the record.

In response to whether the Culinary is standing alone, Pappageorge said the union is “not too worried about that.” He said the organization has the largest walk program in the state, adding that its membership is more active than any other group in Nevada. The union, he said, will always push back against “oversteps,” whether they come from Republicans or Democrats.

State lawmakers have publicly rallied around Nguyen, who served in the Assembly before she was appointed to the Senate. Her supporters also comprise an alliance of groups that often don’t agree, including the gaming industry and the trial lawyers, both of which contributed to Nguyen during the first quarter. 

As of April, Nguyen had raised $65,000 more than Hughes, and had $222,000 in cash on hand to Hughes’ $6,000. The next quarterly reporting deadline is in July, about a month after the primary election.

Sources familiar with the caucuses who spoke on the condition of anonymity noted that privately, there’s frustration around the union’s targeting of Nguyen and cast the union’s campaign against her as an effort to crucify a beloved colleague, especially when no one gets everything they want during a legislative session.

As for any damage to the union’s long-standing relationship between legislative Democrats and the Reid Machine more broadly?

Culinary officials have said that the union will reconsider its endorsements ahead of the general election, while the Culinary said it plans to run the “largest canvassing operation in the state in the greater Las Vegas area and in the greater Reno area.” 

That operation will likely benefit Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and President Joe Biden’s re-election efforts, and, as a result, help down-ballot Democrats. 

Pappageorge said that, for the moment, the union is focused on the June 11 primary.

“This is the Culinary Machine and we make a difference in Nevada,” Pappageorge said. “This is the primary. This is where we want to make sure we get the very best Democrats to take on some of these MAGA election deniers that are out there and these Republicans that really don't support workers one bit.”

This story was updated at 12:33 p.m. on 5/20/2024 to reflect that the two candidates targeted by the Culinary Union are backed by the Democratic caucuses.

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