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Can unions save Joe Biden's campaign?

Health care is top priority at Nevada caucus

Las Vegas — On Valentine's Day, while many of the guests at the ritzy Bellagio were lost in their romantic thoughts, Joe Biden had courtship of a different kind in mind. He went straight to the back of the hotel to its service hallways to greet hundreds of workers serving the Valentine's Day vacationers.

Leaving the traveling press corps behind, Biden asked the workers about their jobs and families but did not ask for their vote, as he usually does on the campaign trail, according to two aides who were with him.

Still, it's their support he'll need in the short term. In the wake of disappointing finishes out of the top three in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden and his team are counting on the service unions here to keep him in the race for the White House. 

But union membership has dwindled by half over the last two decades, representing around 10% of the American workforce. Biden promises a union revival if elected.

Labor's presence at his events has provided a bedrock of support for Biden. Five national unions have already endorsed him, the most of any Democratic presidential candidate, along with several local and state unions. His campaign is hoping to highlight his appeal to unions at the forefront of his campaign, especially this week in Nevada where almost 15% of employees are union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Although a senior Biden source called it a "letdown" to hear the powerful Culinary Union representing tens of thousands of service workers on the Las Vegas strip announce it would not be endorsing a candidate, Biden did receive a consolation prize when the head of the union, Geoconda Argüello-Kline, told reporters that the former vice president is a "friend" of the union.  

Perhaps more valuable to Biden, though, is that the Culinary Union has made no secret of its rejection of the "Medicare for All" health plan championed by front-runner Bernie Sanders and by Elizabeth Warren. It's a proposal that would do away with the union's generous private health care plan, which, Argüello-Kline pointed out, was the reason its members "went on strike for 6 years, 4 months, and 10 days to protect." The union gave its members a scorecard of the candidates pointing out the moderates like Biden, who would "Protect Culinary Healthcare," versus Sanders, who would "End Culinary Healthcare." 

Culinary Union candidate scorecard Alex Tin / CBS News

While two senior Biden campaign sources told CBS News they would consider beating Sanders in Nevada an upset, they think that if Biden performs well in Nevada, strong union support could be key to keeping the campaign competitive in future states. In 2016 labor supported Hillary Clinton with more national union endorsements than Sanders, and union voters ultimately voted for her 2 to 1, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

But even in union-friendly states, the value of union endorsements is debatable. While a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) indicates a union member is only 4% more likely to vote than a non-union member with similar traits, other research indicates that union endorsements may have a larger effect on voters who would otherwise be less inclined to vote.

"The effect of unions tends to be larger for workers who might not otherwise participate in politics," Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University who studies American unions, told CBS News, "Unions are offering their members information about who is on the ballot…and practically helping members register to vote and turn out on Election Day."

After Nevada, though, many of the subsequent nominating contests will be taking place in states with lower union membership or "right-to-work" laws that prohibit unions from forcing employees' participation and mandating dues of their workers, a move that Democrats see as significantly weakening union bargaining power.

South Carolina, a right-to-work state, and the location of the next nominating contest Biden has targeted for the resurgence of his campaign, has the lowest rate of unionized workers in the entire country with just 2.2%, according to BLS. He is still polling well there, but his lead has narrowed.

Eight of the 16 states and territories voting four days after South Carolina on Super Tuesday are right-to-work states where both unions and individual unions members on average are less likely to be politically engaged, according to a 2018 NBER study.

In Vegas, Biden is speaking the language of the unions. At one event last weekend, the workers who helped construct the Las Vegas strip vigorously cheered Biden's demand that federal projects be built with "Davis-Bacon money," a reference to union prevailing wage laws.

Louis Loupias, a heavy-equipment apprentice coordinator for the Operating Engineers union in Las Vegas, told CBS News he appreciated Biden's response to the Trump Administration's Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP) which encourages more business participation with apprenticeship programs, rather than long established and government-registered apprenticeship programs.

On Tuesday, Loupias estimated almost half of his local union had already voted in the new Nevada early caucus process and added Biden's forum presence ensured him he is someone he could confidently support if he is the nominee. But Loupias said he voted early for Tom Steyer because he admires how he built his billion-dollar company and created jobs. Not all unions oppose Sanders here, either. Vote Nurses Values PAC, the political arm of National Nurses United, is running radio ads encouraging Nevadans to caucus for Sen. Bernie Sanders.  

Biden's first union endorsement came from the 313,000-member International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which says it plans to keep working for him. His affection for the firefighters extends beyond their attendance at his event in their gold-and-black "Fire Fighters for Biden" T-shirts. He treats them like rock stars, informing crowds that "God made man…and then he made a few fire fighters."

IAFF members served as caucus precinct chairs for Biden in Iowa and now has a team in Nevada ready to assist. Its members have injected hundreds of thousands of dollars in his campaign, as well as at least $100,000 into the super PAC supporting him. 

The 100,000-member National Association of Government Employees representing public and private sector workers, has also thrown its support to Biden, as has the more than 200,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union, and the 130,000-member Iron Workers union, whose presence has been felt in Nevada this week, where "Iron Workers for Biden" t-shirts and signs can be seen at his events.

"Many of the elders of the party I believe chose to ignore our value as they were looking at identity politics, new coalitions, the new energy and were willing to…push aside hard-working, middle-class union members," IAFF general president Schaitberger said. "We feel like we are sometimes looked at like a bunch of meatballs with meaty hands and are grimy at the end of the work day…but [Biden] grew up in that environment and the overwhelming part of his life did not focus on wealth."

On the stump Biden is "Middle-class Joe" and reminisces about how it unions "built America" and the middle class — not Wall Street. Where he came from, he often says, you either became a cop, fire fighter, tradesman or a priest.

Acknowledging that his 50-year career around Pennsylvania Avenue is a world away from his blue-collar origins in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he shrugs and adds, "But I wasn't qualified to be any of them."

Angela Perez contributed to this report. 

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