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Sanders seeks to smooth Nevada union tensions as rivals pounce

A powerful Nevada union said Sanders supporters "viciously attacked" it after the union warned its members about the candidate's "Medicare for All" proposal.
Image: Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Holds NH Primary Night Event In Manchester
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks on stage during a primary night event on Feb. 11, 2020 in Manchester, N.H.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday sought to ease tensions between his supporters and an influential Nevada union that exploded this week after the union publicly criticized his campaign's push for "Medicare for All."

The fracas prompted a number of the Democratic presidential contenders competing with the Vermont senator for the nomination to jump to the union's defense, after it said it had come under “vicious” attacks from Sanders supporters.

The public battle between Sanders supporters and Nevada's powerful culinary union, which represents 60,000 workers in the hospitality-industry dominated state, broke out after the union sent out a flyer Tuesday warning that Sanders’ Medicare for All plan would "end Culinary health care."

A culinary union representative then said Wednesday that Sanders supporters had, subsequently, "viciously attacked the Culinary Union and working families simply because our union has provided facts on what certain health care proposals might do to take away the system of care we have built over 8 decades.” The union pays for members' health care through a special trust fund.

On Thursday afternoon, Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said the group would not be endorsing any candidate in the Democratic primary. The group did not issue an endorsement during the 2016 election, either.

Sanders, in an apparent effort to defuse the tensions, had tweeted Thursday morning that he supported the union — formally known as Culinary Workers Union Local 226.

“I stand with @Culinary226 fighting for health care, a pension and fair wages,” Sanders wrote. He then criticized the parent company of a Las Vegas hospital, which, according to the culinary union, hasn't agreed to a “fair contract” with the workers who staff its cafeteria and clean the hospital rooms.

"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," Sanders tweeted.

Later in the day, his campaign put out a statement saying that Sanders "would never do anything to diminish the health care that unions and workers have fought for." He also condemned "online harassment."

"Harassment of all forms is unacceptable to me, and we urge supporters of all campaigns not to engage in bullying or ugly personal attacks," Sanders said. "We can certainly disagree on issues, but we must do it in a respectful manner."

Sanders has been on the defensive after the union’s statement Wednesday about being attacked by his supporters.

He praised Culinary Workers in an interview with NBC News' Kristen Welker Wednesday as “a great union” and pledged to “work with them very closely."

But he said its flyer’s assessment of his Medicare for All proposal wasn't correct.

“Our Medicare for All program will work well for the culinary workers, will work well for every union in America because finally we are gonna have comprehensive health care,” he said, adding that “every American, the vast majority of working Americans, will pay substantially less than they're paying right now."

Sanders has said health care savings from his plan would be pushed to union members, but some unions have expressed skepticism of giving up their negotiated health care plans.

Culinary, in particular, has a unique stake in their health care. It has a nonprofit health care fund for its members and the union built its own health care facility in 2017. The Culinary Health Center includes primary, pediatric and urgent care, along with vision care, dental care, MRIs, and CT scans, the union's director of communications, Bethany Khan, told NBC News this week. She said the staff is bilingual, which mirrors the union's membership, and the services have low or no copays.

The Sanders campaign has said its Medicare for All plan would “ensure” that such union-sponsored clinics and health care facilities “are integrated within the Medicare for All system, and kept available for members.”

Meanwhile, Sanders’ competitors for the Democratic nomination pledged their support to the union amid the public spat.

“I stand with @Culinary226 and their fight for better wages, world class health care, and the American dream for working and immigrant families,” tweeted Pete Buttigieg.

“No one should ever attack them for fighting and delivering for their members,” the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor added, before repeating the tweet in Spanish.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., tweeted Wednesday night: “I stand with ⁦‪@Culinary226‬⁩ and let's be clear: attacks on the union are unacceptable.”

“I come from a family of proud union members and I know when unions are strong, America is strong,” Klobuchar said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., tweeted Wednesday night that, “No one should attack @Culinary226 and its members for fighting hard for themselves and their families.”

“Like them, I want to see every American get high-quality and affordable health care-and I'm committed to working with them to achieve that goal,” Warren added.

“I stand with the working men and women of @Culinary226 because supporting labor means supporting our unions,” former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted Wednesday night.

The Biden and Buttigieg campaigns also went on air with television ads this week, directly appealing to culinary union workers.

The culinary union has not decided whether it will endorse a candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary. It did not endorse in the 2016 Democratic primary, but its efforts in the general election were important in 2016 — and could be again in 2020.

Their national union, UNITE HERE, said last month it would remain neutral in the Democratic primary.