Nevada union workers wage epic battle for their lives
Screenshot of a Zoom meeting of Culinary Workers' canvassers talking about their operation before they hit the campaign trail. Photo courtesy of Culinary Workers Facebook page

Blazing hot temperatures regularly top 100 degrees, while the haze from West Coast wildfires lingers in the desert air with the coronavirus. But hundreds of union workers in Nevada are undeterred from going door-to-door to speak with voters. They are driven by the epic struggle for their lives, livelihoods, and familieswinning this crucial battleground state for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

“We’ve never been in a fight like this one,” Giaconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Workers Union Local 226, told a virtual canvas launch Oct. 2. COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 50 hospitality workers and family members and sickened 400 others. “We’re all going through fears because of the pandemic. But controlling the fear makes us stronger. You are doing this work for all of our country.”

FiveThirtyEight has Biden leading by a 6.6 percent polling average in Nevada. But the union and allied organizations aren’t taking anything for granted, considering Trump’s threats to steal the election.

“We have to win this election every single day,” said D. Taylor, president of the 300,000-member Unite Here, the international union for CWU. “At the end of the day, if we work hard we can defeat (Trump). I don’t want to even call him a president.”

The labor movement is universally supporting Biden. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka describes Biden’s platform as the most pro-labor of any Democratic presidential candidate. The Culinary Workers Union, the largest local of Unite Here with 60,000 members, epitomizes organized labor’s determination.

Fighting for her job and son is what fired up Kristie Strejc, a union member in Reno, to knock on doors. “I have not worked since March due to the COVID virus,” she said. “And now I’m about to lose my insurance benefits and I have an 11-year-old son. He’s special needs and he uses a lot of benefits.”

With its vaunted voter turnout machine regarded by many as the most powerful in Nevada, over 250 union members are canvassing in Las Vegas, Reno, and Sparks. Door-to-door canvassing begins typically Sept. 1, but this year started Aug. 1.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and other AFT officials joined the launch and participated in the canvass on Oct. 3. Weingarten told canvassers the American people face multiple simultaneous crisesthe pandemic, economic crisis, racial justice, and democracy crises. “[Your work] is courageous and inspiring and moving. It means we are going to have a voice in our future. We are going to do the work we need to do and do it safely,” she said.

Weingarten acknowledged the long history of solidarity between the AFT and Unite Here, including the role garment workers played in helping found the AFT.

“Whether you are a guest room attendant at a hotel casino or a classroom teacher in an elementary school, Donald Trump is a threat to our livelihoods and all workers and families,” said Mario Yedidia, deputy director of Unite Here.

In contrast to the Culinary Workers Union support for Biden, many of the giant casino owners, including Sheldon Adelson, Lorenzo Fertitta, and Frank Fertitta III, are backing Trump and stuffing his campaign war chest with tens of millions of dollars.

The union is waging its most extensive political program ever in Nevada. “We started earlier, are talking to more people, and driving more voters to vote because we know this president is too much of a threat. We know he relies on confusion, voter suppression, and lies. We know our job is to get out the vote,” said Yedidia.

The effort is even more remarkable given many casinos remain closed on the Las Vegas strip, and roughly half of union members are unemployed. During previous elections, contact between the union and workers was often in the hotels or casinos.

The in-person canvassing parallels the shift to door-to-door canvassing by the Biden-Harris campaign in all the battleground states despite the COVID-19 danger.

The volunteer canvassers are taking extra precautions to safeguard against COVID-19. They double mask, stand six feet from the door, and hand literature with tongs. If a voter opens the door without a mask, the canvassers offer one. If the person refuses, the canvassers leave.

Similarly, volunteers from the group Mi Familia Vota have been registering thousands of voters. Volunteers get temperature checks before going out and carry plenty of bleach wipes, gloves, and pens.

The union is coordinating its effort in Nevada with the Unite Here voter mobilization nationally. Union members phonebank from other states into Nevada. When they successfully contact a Biden supporter, the local canvassing team follows up. People are frequently home due to the pandemic, and canvassers report about 30% success at the doors, much higher than average.

The CWU has a very diverse membership, over half Latino, and a large number of immigrants. That is an advantage in a state like Nevada where 20% of Nevada voters are Latino, a critical voting constituency Biden must turn out to win. “Latinos are the key vote,” Evelyn DeJesus, AFT Executive Vice President, told canvassers. “It is said that victory runs through the Latino community. The truth is, it runs through you. You are showing what the lifeblood of democracy looks like.”

“I’ve learned from my union to make change by speaking up. I’m knocking on doors to make sure we win against this racist president,” said Unite Here Local 8 member Andrea Torres, who took a leave of absence from her job as a sous chef in Seattle to canvas. “I’m fighting hard because I want to make hope for my future, for our future.”

ELECTION 2020: Everything you need to know to vote in your state

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John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He served as national chair of the CPUSA from 2014 to 2019. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.