Dems' California Debate in Turmoil Again Over Labor Fight

Dems' California Debate in Turmoil Again Over Labor Fight
Yasmina Chavez/Las Vegas Sun via AP
Dems' California Debate in Turmoil Again Over Labor Fight
Yasmina Chavez/Las Vegas Sun via AP
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Can Democrats find a labor-dispute-free zone in California to hold their presidential debate?

It’s an open question less than a week before the party’s sixth presidential primary debate, which was set to take place this coming Thursday at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles -- until food service workers announced plans to protest, and all seven candidates who qualified to appear on the stage vowed not to cross the picket line.

It’s the second clash between university workers and their employers to throw plans for the December debate up in the air. In early November, the Democratic National Committee was forced to dump UCLA as its debate site after pressure from a union that had been engaged in a three-year boycott of the school, along with the other eight universities that make up the UC system.

The latest development muddled debate logistics and preparations. The DNC late Friday afternoon said it is trying to help the parties reach a deal that would allow the event to remain at LMU but offered no Plan B if the conflict cannot be resolved before next week.

Unite Here Local 11, a union representing 150 cashiers, cooks, dishwashers and servers who work at the university, earlier Friday said there hadn’t been any breakthroughs in its negotiations with Sodexo, a global services company the university contracted to provide food service operations.

In a statement, the DNC tried to explain that both it and the school had no prior knowledge of any labor disputes at LMU when the college was chosen as the new site after the DNC pulled the plug on UCLA.

“The DNC and LMU learned of this issue earlier today, and it is our understanding that this matter arose within the last day,” said DNC spokesman Xochitl Hinojosa. “While LMU is not a party to the negotiations between Sodexo and Unite Here Local 11, [DNC Chairman] Tom Perez would absolutely not cross a picket line and would never expect our candidates to either. 

“We are working with all stakeholders to find an acceptable resolution that meets their needs and is consistent with our values and will enable us to proceed as scheduled with next week’s debate,” Hinojosa added.

After the first dispute, Perez drew criticism for having chosen UCLA for the final debate of the year, with critics arguing that he should have known about the long-running labor boycott of the UC system’s campuses.

Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who dropped out of the presidential race last week, had backed out of an address at UC Berkeley last year as a way to support workers. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro had joined picket lines alongside UC workers.

Some LMU officials likely were aware of the dispute after workers and students began protesting on campus in November. The DNC’s decision to dump UCLA after a media firestorm over the controversy there could have created more incentives for the union to leverage the public nature of the debate, and the media attention it would attract, in its negotiations with Sodexo.

Local 11 began contract discussions with the company in March but said Sodexo “abruptly” canceled ongoing negotiations last week after workers started picketing at LMU.

“We had hoped that workers would have a contract with wages and affordable health insurance before the #Democraticdebate next week. Instead, workers will be picketing when the candidates come to campus,” Susan Minato, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, tweeted Friday afternoon. Local 11 represents more than 32,000 hospitality workers in Southern California and Arizona who work in hotels, restaurants, universities, convention centers and airports.

Minato said she informed Democratic presidential candidates of the union’s plans to picket the debate on Friday morning.

The candidates who qualified for Thursday’s event, hosted by “PBS NewsHour” and Politico, are former Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang.

One by one, they all said they would not cross a picket line to participate in the debate.

Warren was the first out of the gate, followed by Sanders.

“@UniteHere11 is fighting for better wages and benefits -- and I stand with them,” she tweeted Friday morning. “The DNC should find a solution that lives up to our party’s commitment to fight for working people. I will not cross the union’s picket line even if it means missing the debate.”

“I stand with the workers of @UniteHere11 on campus at Loyola Marymount University fighting Sodexo for a better contract,” Sanders said. “I will not be crossing their picket line.”

Nearly two hours later Biden weighed in with his own tweet: “I won’t be crossing a picket line.
We’ve got to stand together with @UniteHere11 for affordable health care and fair wages. A job is about more than just a paycheck. It’s about dignity.”

Buttigieg echoed these sentiments, also in a tweet: “I take the debate stage to stand up for workers’ rights, not to undermine them. I stand in solidarity with the workers of @UniteHere11 at Loyola Marymount, and I will not cross their picket line.” 

The California Labor Federation, comprised of 1,200 affiliated unions, also ratcheted up the social media pressure Friday morning.

“Every democratic candidate has vowed to fight for working people,” it tweeted. “It’s time to put those words into action.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.



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