Meeting with a small group of Culinary union workers on Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards got up and spoke for less than two minutes, saying he was mainly there to listen.
Edwards just spent three days touring poverty-stricken areas. He told the group of about 50 union members, "The majority of the people I met were working; they just couldn’t make a living."
If those people were able to organize and form strong unions, he said, "it would make a huge difference in their lives."
Taking questions and comments from the assembled workers, Edwards offered words of encouragement and support, but didn’t use them as occasions to grandstand or give lectures about his positions. He nodded and asked questions as the workers told him about their frustrations with MGM Mirage, the major company with which they are still trying to negotiate a new contract.
After one worker complained that MGM’s refusal to reach a settlement was unfair, the former North Carolina senator, clad in jeans and a blue shirt, murmured understandingly, "Everybody can do well. Everybody can do well."
After another, state Sen. Maggie Carlton, said she was losing faith in the employer she was once proud to work for, Edwards cooed, "Beautifully said."
Darian Berry, a bellman at the Excalibur who is the union’s vice president, talked about MGM’s apparent intention to put some of its Strip properties on the lower wage scale of downtown casinos. Edwards squinted and asked Berry to break down the complicated matter, saying, "You have to explain this to me more."
Once he understood the concept, Edwards loyally said, "That’s not right. That should not be allowed to happen." There was an awkward silence as the audience waited for him to expound. Edwards added, "I’m against it," and, realizing that was all he had to say, the room erupted in applause.
Edwards’ support for unions is that uncomplicated: He is for what they are for and against what they are against, no explanation necessary. He has walked picket lines before and pledged to do so again should the Culinary talks come to that.
"If and when you come back, bring better walking shoes, because we’re going to be walking a long time," Caesars Palace worker John Vera informed the candidate.
The union’s secretary-treasurer, D. Taylor, told him he’d also need sunblock.
It was the second time Edwards has met with Culinary, which is expected to command the biggest bloc of votes in the Jan. 19 Democratic presidential nominating contest. The union doesn’t plan to endorse a candidate until December and is making them all work hard to earn it, with multiple appearances.
In May, the majority of the union’s workers saw their contracts expire. Culinary settled relatively quickly with the second-largest employer, Harrah’s Entertainment, but is still locked in battle with the largest, MGM Mirage, which employs 21,000 of Culinary’s 60,000 workers.
Culinary member Marvin Naus, 57, a shop steward and food server at the Excalibur, said he was an Edwards fan.
"Edwards is my favorite, and I hope the union will endorse him when the time comes," Naus said. "He’s a friend of unions. He says it in every one of his speeches."
Naus said he was sure his employer was paying attention to visits such as Edwards’.
"MGM is not looking forward to seeing a presidential candidate walking on their sidewalk," he said. "They have an image to protect."