Las Vegas labor union rallies to take down Trump in 2024 election

Las Vegas, Nevada - It is the Democrats' not-so-secret weapon in Nevada – a vast union of maids, cooks, and bartenders that helped deliver this razor-tight swing state for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in 2016 and 2020.

The Culinary Union secretary-treasurer Ted Pappageorge (pictured) is leading efforts within the union to encourage Nevadans to vote for Joe Biden.
The Culinary Union secretary-treasurer Ted Pappageorge (pictured) is leading efforts within the union to encourage Nevadans to vote for Joe Biden.  © Ronda Churchill / AFP

Now, ahead of November's election, the Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 mainly Las Vegas-based hotel and casino workers, is preparing to mobilize its formidable network against Donald Trump for a third time.

"By election day, we'll have 500 union members – men and women that are normally cleaning rooms in hotels, or cooking food, or serving drinks – out full-time, knocking on doors, registering folks to vote, taking folks to the polls," said the union's secretary-treasurer, Ted Pappageorge.

"Getting out the vote. There's no other way to win."

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Nevada has become a key battleground in US presidential elections.

Democratic candidates have flocked in particular to Las Vegas, home to three-quarters of the sprawling desert state's population.

Clinton was a frequent visitor in 2016, courting hotel workers and union members in casino back rooms and employee cafeterias. It was one of the few swing states she won.

Biden prevailed in another tight race four years later. He and Vice President Kamala Harris have recently made time to march on picket lines and celebrate hard-fought new contracts with union members.

In his book Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, author Steven Greenhouse calls the Culinary Union a "political juggernaut that has gone far in turning Nevada from red to blue."

Could Culinary Union sway the vote again in Nevada?

President Biden (c.) joined the Culinary Union's picket line in 2020 amid a fight for new contracts.
President Biden (c.) joined the Culinary Union's picket line in 2020 amid a fight for new contracts.  © MARK RALSTON / AFP

"We play a pretty big role," agreed Pappageorge. "But it's a special role."

That clout comes not just from being Nevada's biggest union, with a diverse membership that is 60% Latino and 55% female, but also its political canvassing machine.

In 2022, when Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto was re-elected by fewer than 8,000 votes, the Culinary Union said its canvassers knocked on more than a million doors, speaking with 175,000 voters in a state home to three million people, the union says.

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This year, the union will raise funds to pay hundreds of union canvassers to take leave from their jobs and pound the streets again, said Pappageorge.

"They sign up for three to six months during the election year. They walk the neighborhoods every day, 10 hours a day, in 110 degrees, getting chased by dogs and all sorts of other things," he said. "Workers talking to workers. That's how we move the working class vote in Nevada."

The Culinary Union has tripled in size since the late 1980s.

Guild-negotiated wage rises have afforded Nevada hospitality workers middle-class lifestyles not seen in much of the US.

The union has become more politically focused. Each election, it identifies candidates with pro-union policies and mobilizes voters to tip the balance.

While it has backed Republicans in some past races, these days, it is squarely behind Biden, who Pappageorge calls "the best president for working-class people and families and unions in my lifetime."

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Donald Trump could be a threat in Nevada, as the former president is narrowly leading most polls right now.
Donald Trump could be a threat in Nevada, as the former president is narrowly leading most polls right now.  © Patrick T. FALLON / AFP

The mobilization focuses on cities like Las Vegas and Reno, blue union-dominated bastions in a state containing vast, conservative, rural counties.

Urban voters are younger and ethnically diverse – demographics less likely to vote.

"Turnout is everything in Nevada," said Pappageorge. "That's where the Culinary Union comes in."

Yet this year, simply getting traditional voters out may not be enough. Trump is narrowly leading most Nevada polls.

Independents outnumber Democrats in the state for the first time. And Latino and Black voters – who overwhelmingly backed Biden in 2020 – are less reliably anti-Trump.

"It's early. We're not too worried about that," said Pappageorge.

Latino working-class voters are "not much different than white working-class voters," he said. "Both are concerned about a woman's right to choose. They want law and order on the border, but they want compassion."

Gripes over Biden's management of the economy are perhaps the most common refrain.

Nevada has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates. The cost of living and housing prices have ballooned.

Pappageorge blames Trump's early mishandling of the pandemic, which completely shut the Las Vegas Strip's world-famous casinos, and price-gouging corporations.

But with all these factors combined, "it's going to be even closer" than previous elections, Pappageorge predicted.

"There's a lot at stake," he said. "Nevada matters."

Cover photo: Collage: Ronda Churchill & Patrick T. Fallon / AFP

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