LAS VEGAS >> A half-dozen Democratic presidential candidates will descend on Las Vegas today to pitch themselves to one of America’s largest unions as champions of workers and kitchen-table issues.
The daylong forum is organized by the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Service Employees International Union. It’s expected to focus on wages and working people’s issues as union leaders and their supporters worry the 2020 field of at least 20 Democrats is spending too much time talking about esoteric issues rather than about bread-and-butter concerns.
Just this week, several Democratic contenders debated whether criminals in prison should be able to win back their right to vote, the type of issue that some union leaders worry has nothing to do with the economic issues that motivate some working-class voters. It’s that anxiety that’s fueling Joe Biden’s newly launched presidential campaign.
The former vice president will not be in Las Vegas on Saturday but will hold his first public event on Monday at a union hall in Pittsburgh. He’s expected to scoop up a major endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters while calling to bolster the middle class.
While labor has long made up a key pillar of the Democratic Party, many white working-class voters and swing-state union members supported Republican Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats are working to win back those voters, but party leaders and union members are cautioning candidates that they need to be talking about issues that matter to working families.
“I don’t think you can ever have enough” discussion of those issues, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters during a press call Thursday.
The longtime Democratic Nevada senator said that despite record-low unemployment, “we have so many people unemployed or underemployed.” He said he hopes candidates at Saturday’s event can focus on ways to deal with automation and the so-called skills gap between what employers want and what job candidates know.
While much of the Democratic conversation has centered on liberal touchstones like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal climate change plan, some of the White House contenders speaking in Las Vegas on Saturday have made concerted union appeals.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, speaking to hundreds of airline and rail workers at a union convention in Las Vegas earlier this month, pledged to enforce prevailing wage laws. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts joined striking Stop & Shop workers on a picket line in New Hampshire this month, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California hired a top Service Employees International Union executive for her campaign.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Obama administration housing chief Julian Castro are also scheduled to speak at Saturday’s event.
The Service Employees International Union is one of the country’s largest unions, with about 2 million members. The union said it would consider endorsing a candidate who commits to making it easier for workers to join a union, supports a $15 minimum wage and goes beyond just walking a picket line with workers by shadowing them at work.
SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry said the union has no timeline for an endorsement but does not expect one soon. Henry said Democratic presidential candidates have discussed fragments of the issues faced by working people, such as affordable child care or health care, but have generally not yet dived into “a comprehensive set of actions that we think the next president can take that would commit to ending poverty wage work in this nation.”
Henry said that includes discussions about “unrigging the rules” of the economy, holding corporations accountable and strengthening unions.
“You can’t really make progress or have the power to improve kitchen-table issues like wages, affordable health care, affordable child care and a secure retirement unless we figure out a way for millions more people to get a seat at the table and be able to bargain,” she said.