Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders stood his ground over his signature health care policy as he faced a tough line of questioning — and even a few hecklers — during his Tuesday town hall meeting with the powerful Culinary Union Local 226 in Las Vegas.
The exchange took place early in the event, which was part of a series held by the union and its parent union, UNITE HERE. Sanders took his typical stance: Health care is a human right, the current system creates immense suffering and the country’s current overpayment for benefits could be redirected to pay for Medicare for All.
The crowd was otherwise firmly behind Sanders, offering standing ovations and chants of “Bernie! Bernie” at various intervals during his remarks. His plans on immigration, criminal justice and climate change were cheered loudly, and his harsh rhetoric attacking corporate America and President Donald Trump resonated with the firmly union audience.
— On health care: Elodia Muñoz, one of 550 Culinary members to strike against the Frontier hotel for more than six years between 1991 and 1998, asked Sanders why she should want any changes to the health care benefits she fought to win.
Sanders responded with a similarly hard line on Medicare for All, while backing it up with familiar statistics: 87 million people uninsured, 30,000 of whom die each year; and 500,000 annual medical bankruptcies.
A handful of people chanted “union health care” over Sanders at several intervals. UNITE HERE President D. Taylor eventually chastened the crowd, noting members were “here to learn from the candidates… not the hecklers.”
The back-and-forth was expected, as leaders within the Culinary Union have publicly made protecting their hard-won health benefits a priority. (Under Sanders plan, Medicare would replace private health insurance, including union plans.)
The Trump campaign looked to turn the knife on Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders early, with local spokesman Keith Schipper saying they were in for “a rude awakening.”
Nevertheless, Sanders stuck to his guns — even repeating his plans to guarantee health care to all Americans while addressing other more favorable topics.
— Deep experience on union issues. Throughout the event, Sanders cited his many legislative efforts to raise the minimum wage, force employers to recognize union elections and curb corporate greed. He also has first-hand experience dealing with many of the companies employing UNITE HERE workers, such as American Airlines.
— One member’s review. When asked how Sanders did, Park MGM cook Jacob George launched into Sanders on health care.
“He didn’t give us the answer we really wanted, which is our health care is the best in the state, and we’ll be able to keep it,” George said.
George said he agreed that all Americans should have health care and praised Sanders’ support on immigration and other topics. But he stressed the union’s benefits are the No. 1 reason membership remains high, and its huge size gives the union the political and bargaining power it needs to accomplish its goals.
He scoffed at Sanders’ suggestion that the $12,000 employers would save annually per employee on health benefit costs under his plan would be returned to the worker.
“They are not going to give us that extra money,” George said. “We’re a union. We know where that money will go.”
Sanders’ town hall was the second of three this week.
Warren, also a proponent of Medicare for All, avoided verbal bloodshed during her health care question by softening her answer and keeping things vague.
Former Vice President Joe Biden — who does not favor the Medicare for All approach — will meet with the union Wednesday.