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In Vegas, Kamala Harris visit to Culinary Union spotlights labor role in 2024 election

Culinary’s famed door-knocking operation will be critical to Democrats’ re-election chances in November.
Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
Election 2024Elections

Officially, Vice President Kamala Harris swung through Las Vegas Wednesday on a victory lap for organized labor, meeting with Culinary Workers Union Local 226 members at the union’s downtown headquarters to celebrate their recently negotiated contracts with major Las Vegas Strip casino properties.

Flanked by acting Labor Secretary Julie Su, the Democrats of Nevada’s congressional delegation and Culinary leadership, Harris congratulated the union members on their new contracts and mounted a defense of organized labor as the “backbone of the strength of our nation.” 

Unofficially, Harris’ visit is the latest in a run of campaign-esque events taking place in Nevada with an official White House veneer as she and President Joe Biden gear up for re-election. And while she did not discuss the election or Biden’s likely opponent Donald Trump by name, Harris animatedly drew a distinction between the two candidates’ leadership styles — and which are union-esque.

“They're pushing this stuff that suggests that the measure of the strength of the leader is based on who you beat down, instead of what we know,” Harris said. “The true measure of the strength of a leader is based on who you lift up.” 

Harris — making her ninth trip to the Silver State since taking office in 2021— last came to Nevada in October, where a Q&A event at the College of Southern Nevada played out like a rally. Biden, meanwhile, turned last month’s announcement of federal dollars for a high speed rail line between Southern Nevada and Southern California into an invective that just as often bashed the Trump administration and the country’s largest corporations. 

Undergirding both visits: Organized labor as a key pillar of Democratic electoral success. 

Biden’s speech was delivered from a sprawling Las Vegas training facility for the local carpenters union. Harris’ visit celebrated Culinary’s recent successful contract negotiations with major hospitality employers including Caesars, Wynn and MGM International that landed workers a 32 percent raise over five years. 

On a drab and drizzly Vegas afternoon, a crowd of about 250 people, many of them red-shirted Culinary members, filled the union’s headquarters for Harris’ speech — an event that opened with a mariachi band that had much of the crowd singing along in Spanish.

Harris was introduced by Elena Newman, a guest room attendant at Mandalay Bay and member of the Culinary executive board who recounted Harris’ support in her prior visit.

“She told us that [if] we were going to strike, she will be here to walk the picket line with us,” Newman said. “And that was a very powerful message.”

The message also resonated for Culinary members still negotiating contracts with downtown casinos and other union properties in Las Vegas. Satoria Partridge, a Culinary member and employee at Circa in downtown Las Vegas, credited the Culinary contracts with the three biggest casino companies at least in part on White House backing, and said Harris' visit Wednesday “means that we have people that have our back.”

Partridge, a registered Democrat, said she fully backed Biden’s re-election bid and wasn’t overly worried that the 81-year-old incumbent remains widely unpopular heading into 2024. 

“I believe that the working class and the younger people are going to come in and they're going to vote,” Partridge said. “And we're going to get them again.”

Though the parties narrowly avoided a strike, Culinary’s negotiations in Nevada were part of a larger simmering labor movement around the country last year, with notable strikes in the auto and entertainment industries.

The Biden administration wants to cast the “Hot Labor Summer” — and recent increases in union organizing — as a downstream effect of both the policies and rhetoric of a pro-labor leader who became the first sitting president to walk a picket line. It’s an argument Biden will need to pull off to win swing state Nevada, where elections are routinely decided by fewer votes than the number of members in Culinary.

“The president has never been shy about saying that unions built the middle class,” said Yvanna Cancela, a former Culinary political director who now serves as a senior adviser at The White House, in an interview before the speech. “And I think his commitment has created an environment where workers are organizing and winning.”

Cancela cited figures of job growth and investment in the Silver State as proof positive of Biden’s support for workers —  the White House estimates that 239,000 jobs have been added in Nevada and over $8 billion has been committed by private companies since January 2021.

Harris did not discuss policy specifics. But the campaign is banking on a symbiotic relationship with unions like Culinary, which it will rely on to tout their labor principles.

The Biden administration’s major legislative accomplishments — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act — all aim to spur domestic manufacturing and job creation via federal investments that favor projects with project-labor agreements and pre-hire bargaining agreements. And his Department of Labor restored the prevailing wage standard for workers on federal construction projects including the planned high-speed rail line from Las Vegas to Southern California.

Those moves have earned Biden the endorsement of several major unions, including Culinary and its mighty door-knocking operation

In 2022, Culinary canvassers decked out in union-red shirts took credit for knocking on 1 million doors, a number that they said at the time “delivered” the Senate race for incumbent Democrat Cortez Masto. When the top-of-the-ticket Senate race was too close to call, Culinary volunteers raced to ensure Democratic voters were curing ballot signatures, fixing errant ballots in time for them to be counted ahead of legal deadlines. 

On the Republican side, Trump has made more of a play for the union rank-and-file, arguing his administration negotiated better trade deals after making the decline of Rust Belt manufacturing a critical theme in his 2016 campaign. He has promised to continue the protectionist policies he enacted as president, including major new tariffs.

Harris’ speech comes as the Trump campaign’s top brass circulated a memo saying the former president will be explicitly targeting Democratic constituencies including union members — a group he overperformed with in 2016, with rank-and-file members in the Midwest helping flip the traditional blue wall. 

While in office, Trump’s National Labor Relations Board supported employers in their efforts to categorize workers as independent contractors and relaxed the standard for employers to dismantle existing worker unions — earning the ire of union leaders.   

The two frontrunners clashed on the labor battlefield in September, when each visited Michigan amidst the United Auto Workers strike — Trump to a non-unionized auto shop to slam Biden on his embrace of electric vehicles, Biden to the UAW picket line urging workers to stand firm in their demands.

Nevada exit polls from the 2020 election show union households breaking sharply in favor of Biden over Trump — 58 percent to 39 percent. However, only 19 percent of voters reported being in a union household.

This story was updated at 9 a.m. on 1/4/24 to correct the nature of private companies' commitments in Nevada since January 2021. Companies have committed, rather than invested, $8 billion in the state.


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