Even without endorsing, Culinary Union seeks to be major player in politics and beyond

Geoconda Arguello-Kline, left, secretary-treasurer for Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, and Nevada State Sen. Ruben Kihuen, center, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, take part in a Culinary Union protest near Trump International Hotel on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, in Las Vegas. Trump International Hotel workers are not unionized.

After playing a big role when Democratic candidates last battled each other for their party's presidential nomination, the Culinary Union is staying above the fray this time around.

While it made waves by backing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in January 2008, the union did not announce support for anyone this month. In fact, the Culinary has decided not to make an endorsement in the 2016 Democratic primary.

That’s not to say the union isn’t being vocal about anything right now. Rather, it appears more focused on a different sort of campaign: its efforts to organize workers at Station Casinos, the Trump International Hotel and the Palms.

Still, the decision not to endorse in the primary marks a notable contrast to eight years ago, when the Culinary and its parent organization, Unite Here, came out swinging for Obama. The president of Unite Here said at the time that the group would do “everything in (its) power” to help Obama win the White House because he would “bring working Americans with him,” according to the Associated Press.

The Culinary’s endorsement was seen then as a boost to Obama — and a blow to Clinton. The union has proven to be a powerful force in Nevada politics, with a minority-heavy membership and organizing muscle that can turn out large numbers of voters.

In the end, Clinton received a larger share of the popular vote in the 2008 Nevada caucus, but Obama won the delegate count.

This year, the Culinary indicated it would focus on the general election, with a statement saying the union hoped to register thousands of its members to vote in November.

“No organization in Nevada represents more Latinos or more African-Americans, and as we did in 2008 and 2012, we will turn out tens of thousands of people to vote,” the union’s statement said.

If the Culinary had endorsed a Democratic candidate, it could theoretically have had a stronger motivation to ensure that its members participate in the Nevada caucus, thereby helping to boost turnout. The state Democratic Party sought to assure that it wants Strip workers to participate anyway. Stewart Boss, press secretary for the state party, said in an email that soon-to-be-announced at-large precincts would be “open to all shift workers, union and nonunion, within a 2.5 mile radius on the Las Vegas Strip.” In an interview last week, Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, indicated that her group had more pressing priorities than endorsing a primary candidate.

“In reality, right now, we’ve been focused on organizing,” she said. Arguello-Kline said the union has welcomed all candidates, and that has certainly been clear on the Democratic side.

Clinton spoke at a union rally outside the Trump hotel in October, one day before the Democratic debate was held at the Wynn Las Vegas nearby. Martin O’Malley did the same at a separate appearance at the Trump hotel two months earlier, and Bernie Sanders has reportedly met with union members as well.

The fact that two candidates appeared at the Trump hotel underscores where the union’s main priorities lie right now.

Donald Trump was, of course, invoked — negatively — on both occasions, but the Culinary has been more concerned with its organizing campaign at the hotel than his presidential bid. After calling public attention to its organizing last year, the Culinary announced in December that a majority of eligible Trump hotel employees had voted in favor of union representation. The hotel objected to the vote later that month.

A Trump hotel representative did not respond to a request for comment, but Trump’s son Eric spoke critically of the union in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun published in October.

“Since the very beginning of Trump International, the union has tried and has failed to unionize,” Trump said. “Our employees are categorically rejecting the union, and it’s for reasons beyond just salary and benefits. It is because we have a strong relationship with all of them.”

The union is not losing sight of its long-running feud with Station Casinos, either. For years, the Culinary has sought to organize workers at the chain of locals casinos, and it has held large rallies outside Station properties as recently as last year.

Lately, however, the union’s preferred tactic has been to draw attention to Station’s relationship with Deutsche Bank, which was hit with a record $2.5 billion fine last year due to its connection to an interest rate-rigging scandal. Deutsche Bank currently owns 25 percent of Station Casinos.

The Culinary has sent letters to regulators, rallied and spoken out about Deutsche Bank in public meetings, such as Station’s hearing last week to get approval for its planned initial public offering. Regulators did discuss the bank issue with Station representatives but found no serious cause for concern. They approved the company’s IPO plan. A Station Casinos spokesperson declined to comment.

Deutsche Bank has a history with the Culinary. The union fought intensely against the Cosmopolitan when it was owned by the bank, staging multiple protests as contract negotiations stalled. But that changed after Blackstone Group bought the resort: The new ownership and the union announced last year that they had agreed to a four-year contract covering some 2,000 workers.

“It was a battle before,” Arguello-Kline said of the Cosmopolitan. “But Blackstone took over, and we’re proud to work with Blackstone, because we reached an agreement that we feel is great for the workers.”

As a result, the union says the number of workers it represents in Las Vegas and Reno has grown from more than 55,000 to 57,000. That’s still less than it was before the recession hit, but it’s a noticeable growth at a time when unions elsewhere face legal and political challenges to their growth and strength.

Private sector union membership declined from 7.9 percent of those employed in 2004 to 6.6 percent in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ruben Garcia, a UNLV professor with expertise in labor law, contrasted the Culinary’s enduring strength with the fact that Nevada is a right-to-work state, meaning employees cannot be required to join a union or pay union dues.

“To represent so many workers in a right-to-work state, I think, shows their ability to organize,” Garcia said. “And, of course, their political organization was also shown by the fact that their endorsement is very coveted.”