UNITE HERE’s Culinary Workers Union Local 226 was tagged the Nevada’s “most effective Democratic turnout machine" last year by resident political guru Jon Ralston in a piece profiling the union's sophisticated door-knocking operation.
“If there is indeed a wave in Nevada this cycle,” he wrote last October, Local 226 “will be a large reason the state goes blue.”
Nevada did go blue—providing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton a major win, holding on to Harry Reid’s Senate seat with the election of Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, and flipping two of the state’s four congressional districts from red to blue. Democrats also took control of the State Senate and the State House.
It was one of the only states where closely watched races fell Democrats’ way on Election Day and UNITE HERE, the Culinary’s parent union, played a key role in organizing all those 226 foot soldiers to get the job done. Following those pick ups, UNITE HERE president D. Taylor explained that union organizers helped turn Nevada into a battleground state by pushing its political operation beyond where most of its members were located, in bright blue Las Vegas, and moving north into redder regions like Washoe County.
The biggest city there is Reno, where we have a much smaller membership. In Reno, voters wanted to talk about education and college debt. We sometimes disagreed about the solution, but had the respect to listen.
The people who live in Washoe County are the same people that no one talked to in Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida who voted for Trump. We did the hard work and won Washoe County for Hillary Clinton by 2,503 votes.
As Democrats begin to regroup and eye the possibilities for 2018, it seemed like the perfect time to check in with Taylor about his thoughts on how to reach the very voters who handed Trump the thinnest of victory margins in the Rust Belt.
1. You were heavily involved last year in Nevada, which turned out to be one of the very few bright spots for Democrats on election night. What can national Democrats learn from what happened in Nevada?
UNITE HERE played a major role in the 2016 elections in Nevada, both because it is a presidential swing state and because our biggest UNITE HERE local union, Culinary and Bartenders Local 226, is based in Las Vegas. Thousands of our predominately female and minority union members who work as hotel housekeepers, servers, and food service workers organized to have one-on-one, personal conversations with their neighbors about what was at stake in the 2016 election, and why their union was supporting who it was. Our union members in Nevada were phone-banking during their lunch breaks in the casinos of the Las Vegas strip, knocking on doors in the evenings and on weekends, and telling their personal story to undecided voters about what was at a risk in this election. The value of effective one-on-one persuasion conversations is game changing. I knock with everyone else in the union every year, and the way an individual conversation can immediately move a voter never ceases to impress upon me that there is no substitute for it. In Nevada, we elected the first ever Latina to the U.S. Senate, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, after she sided with our union members and all working class Nevadans on how to achieve economic equality. We also helped flip two U.S. House seats in Nevada, one of which was won by Congressman Ruben Kihuen, whose mother and brother are both members of our union. Winning elections is about having candidates who are worth mobilizing for and will stand up for working class families, then doing the real grassroots work on the doors with neighbors speaking to neighbors.
2. You're not based in Washington, yet you're the leader of national union. Why? What's the benefit of not being in Washington?
Working outside of Washington was a conscious decision on my part so I could be as accessible to our membership as possible—I split my home base between a Midwestern and a West Coast office, and am on the road working with an affiliate more often than not. UNITE HERE represents workers from Toronto to Texas and Hawaii to Boston, and this allows me to be in the thick of it. I am in the field more than in either home base, and I enjoy getting to be shoulder to shoulder with our members in the trenches across the country. Our UNITE HERE members are doing amazing work to improve the quality of lives for their families and communities all across the country and Canada, and it's a privilege to go out and be a part of that.
3. There's a debate over direction now within the Democratic Party and they're already pouring a lot of resources into determining how to win over white non-college educated voters—people that gave Trump the margin he needed in middle America. What would you say about where Democrats should place their emphasis heading into 2018?
I believe the majority of workers wanting to achieve the American dream will respond to common sense economic messages, but only if a political party stands up to deliver policies that will improve their lives. This summer, UNITE HERE won a first-in-the-nation pharmaceutical drug pricing law in Nevada that addresses price gouging for insulin drugs. Supporters of the bill spoke about their own struggles to survive, testifying before the legislature about having had to choose between keeping a roof over their head or filling their prescriptions. Diabetes patients gave personal accounts of their health deteriorating to the point of necessitating amputation, simply because they could not afford their insulin. That’s not a life with dignity. The Trump message that the system is rigged does resonate with many Americans because the healthcare and tax systems have failed them.
4. You work with hard-working women and men every day and you've written about what the Democratic economic message should be—what kind of economic message do the Democrats need going forward?
Democrats need to start talking about the issues everyday American workers actually care about, which are to still be able to pay rent if they also get their pharmacy prescription filled, to retire with dignity after a lifetime spent doing hard and honest work, and to have a decent standard of living in exchange for playing by the rules and paying their fair share. The reality for too many Americans is that the most important issue in their lives is often survival. The truth is that a worker union is the best shot workers have for upward economic movement in this country because of the power it gives workers to secure all of those things, yet too many Democrats for too long have been running from the reality that an America with less unions is a low-income and unequal America. With every new state, federal, and Supreme Court restriction on worker union freedom and collective bargaining, it gets harder and harder for workers to reach a decent standard of living. Our union has had record growth over the last 3.5 years, adding 49,000 new members, and it's because of the difference a union makes in raising the quality of life for workers and their communities. American workers are hurting, and if Democrats want to win their votes they need to carry the mantle for policies that manifest good paying union jobs, accessible low-cost healthcare, and retirement security that every American deserves.
5. Are you seeing any emerging electoral trends that have been overlooked or overshadowed by events in Washington?
One of the most important emerging electoral trends of the Trump years and resulting congressional dysfunction has been the shift in solution-driven lawmaking from the federal government to enterprising state governments around the country. While federal politicians discussed the prescription drug pricing crises this summer, the states were the ones making and passing laws to stop pharmaceuticals from gouging consumers. Oregon, Maryland, California, and Nevada all introduced anti-price gouging legislation in their 2017 sessions. Nevada’s bill was signed into law after a major campaign led by the UNITE HERE affiliate in state, and California's bill is moving and made it out of committee with the backing of a diverse UNITE HERE-led coalition. While most of the national media is focusing on Trump’s numerous dysfunctions, amazing work is happening around the country at the state level. As long as we have federal gridlock, you can continue to expect to see states as the big leaders for the problems effecting every day working Americans.