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November 28, 2014

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It’s Culinary vs. everyone else in labor spat

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Sam Morris

The Culinary Union’s Pilar Weiss checks her cell phone after a union event Friday. Weiss said, as the public face of the union, criticism is inevitable.

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Long-simmering tensions between Nevada’s largest union, Culinary Workers Local 226, and other state labor organizations have spilled over to presidential politics and are now playing a role in Saturday’s Democratic caucus.

The biggest divide is between the Culinary and the state’s second-largest union, the Nevada State Education Association, which has filed a lawsuit that would make it harder for Culinary members to vote.

Other unions are simply hustling with renewed vigor to muster support for opponents of the Culinary-backed candidate Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Some of those unions say they are motivated by a dual desire: to push their candidate to victory and to deal the Culinary an embarrassing blow.

Eight Nevada unions have endorsed New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Four are backing former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Three, including the Culinary, support Obama.

The rivalry among unions seeped into public view last week when the teachers union joined a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of nine at-large caucus sites on the Strip, which it says give Culinary members disproportionate sway. Those sites are intended to make caucusing more accessible to shift workers at casinos allowing them to participate without returning to designated caucus sites closer to their homes.

The lawsuit poked a figurative finger in the eye of the Culinary, which has 60,000 members.

This union-on-union conflict is unusual, but labor officials say it is part of a long-standing resentment of the Culinary fueled to some extent by its size and clout. Its drumbeat often drowns out the voice of other unions.

Still, some labor figures and Democratic insiders say the Culinary and its political director, Pilar Weiss, have alienated other unions with tactics they regard as bullying.

Culinary officials said the criticism is not unusual, especially when you are the biggest kid on the labor block. “The union movement has all kinds of differences,” said Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor said. “I’m not surprised.”

Weiss echoed those comments.

“We’re committed to being part of a strong labor movement and if other people have a problem with our work, that’s their issue,” she said. “Nevada is a small state; people gossip.”

The Culinary is using the lawsuit to rally its members, calling the teachers union a tool of the Clinton campaign. The teachers union’s deputy executive director has personally endorsed Clinton, and the union’s political consultant is an adviser to Clinton’s state campaign chairman.

But the teachers’ lawsuit is only the most recent and public dust-up between the two unions.

In April, the teachers union, which has 28,000 members, planned a conference at the Peppermill hotel and casino in Reno. The union had commitments from Clinton and Edwards to appear.

A week before the conference, the Culinary expressed concerns that the Peppermill was nonunion and suggested an alternative: hold the event nearly four miles away at a union property.

The teachers union decided that arrangement wouldn’t work and canceled the event rather than pick a fight with the Culinary.

Last fall, when the teachers proposed a ballot initiative to raise the state tax on gaming, the Culinary declined to take a position. The teachers union felt the Culinary was putting its relationship with the casino industry ahead of the labor community’s best interests.

The teachers are not alone in their resentment.

Minutes after the Service Employees International Union Nevada, which represents 17,500 health care and public sector workers, decided last week to endorse Obama, a union board member suggested announcing the choice at a news conference with the Culinary Union.

That idea was quickly shot down by others on the board. Beating the Culinary was important.

Union activists and Democratic insiders apart from the teachers union and SEIU say such resentment stems from what they see as Weiss’ brass-knuckle tactics.

“With the Culinary in general, and Pilar in particular, you can walk the picket line and avoid all the hotels that aren’t unionized, but if you do one thing wrong in their eyes, then the rest is never remembered,” said one Democratic consultant, who, like others interviewed for this story, agreed to speak only if kept anonymous because of possible reprisals from the Culinary.

Weiss said, as the public face of the union, criticism is inevitable.

“My job, the job of people before me and the job of people after me has always been to represent the membership and make sure our membership’s interests are met,” she said. “It’s always easy ... to make it personal rather than to acknowledge what’s really going on.”

The teachers union’s lawsuit is now bringing tensions to the surface.

The Nevada AFL-CIO, the state’s umbrella labor organization, is remaining officially neutral on the dispute, but many of its member unions are supporting the teachers.

“I hate that there are two labor organizations opposing one another right now,” said Greg Esposito, director of governmental affairs for the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 525, which represents 3,300 workers in Southern Nevada. “At the same time, my members want to have their voice count just as much as anyone else’s.”

Coming from Esposito, an official whose union also endorses Obama, those comments may be telling.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has endorsed Clinton, is also backing the teachers.

Larry Scanlon, the union’s national political director, said it was unlikely that AFSCME would join the lawsuit, but he added: “To the extent that someone else is challenging the process, God bless them.”

The union has deployed 100 paid employees in a member-to-member outreach effort, Scanlon said. It bused another 100 members to Nevada from California over the weekend.

Scanlon said AFSCME has been pushing the state Democratic Party to allow AFSCME members to act as election monitors at the at-large caucus sites. He questioned whether party officials would be able to manage the high level of expected turnout.

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