A powerful union in Nevada declined to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary, dealing a blow to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who had hoped his longstanding ties to organized labor and opposition to “Medicare for all” would win him its support and a much-needed boost in the state’s upcoming caucuses.
“We’re going to endorse our goals, what we’re doing — that’s what we’re going to endorse,” Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, said at a news conference on Thursday. “We’re not going to endorse a political candidate.”
Those goals are threefold, she said: One job should be enough to make a living, health care should be preserved, and the immigration system should be reformed. In the general election, she added, the union’s foremost goal will be defeating President Trump.
The union has been a vocal opponent of Medicare for all, arguing that while health care should be a right, workers must be able to choose where and how to get their insurance. The union has its own health plan and does not want it to be eliminated in favor of a single-payer system.
That stance has put it at odds with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose supporters responded angrily this month after the union distributed fliers criticizing his health care plan. Ms. Argüello-Kline said in a statement on Wednesday that supporters of Mr. Sanders had “viciously attacked” union members, and that the group was simply trying to share “facts on what certain health care proposals might do to take away the system of care we have built over eight decades.”
The union, which represents tens of thousands of workers in Las Vegas and Reno, has sat out primaries before: It did not take sides in 2016, when Hillary Clinton defeated Mr. Sanders in Nevada. But there is a reason its endorsement has been one of the most coveted in the Democratic primary: In 2008, it got behind Barack Obama and played a pivotal role in helping him claim the Nevada caucuses.
The union’s admiration for Mr. Biden is clear: While Ms. Argüello-Kline said on Thursday that the group respected “every single political candidate” in the Democratic race, Mr. Biden was the only one she mentioned by name.
“We’ve known Vice President Biden for many years,” she said. “We know he’s been our friend. We know all these candidates and we respect each of them.”
But Mr. Biden’s lackluster performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the broader uncertainty hanging over the race, made it difficult for the union to endorse someone who could be out of the primary next month.
Rank-and-file members also favored a variety of candidates, and members of the union’s leadership are fond of much of the field, so they did not want to alienate their workers or a potential nominee, according to Democrats familiar with their thinking.
But the union’s decision to remain officially neutral will be a boon to Mr. Sanders. In the first two nominating contests, he benefited from divisions among more moderate Democrats and the decision of many individuals and institutions, including labor, to split their support or stay out of the fray.
The candidates will still devote considerable time to wooing culinary workers, and some are sure to visit them in the Las Vegas casinos where many are employed. The major candidates have all addressed the workers at forums, and many also courted the union’s local and national leaders.
Within hours of the union’s announcement that it would not make an endorsement, Mr. Sanders released a statement saying he agreed with the union’s goals and would “never do anything to diminish the health care that unions and workers have fought for.”
He also addressed the harassment union members said they had received, writing, “Harassment of all forms is unacceptable to me, and we urge supporters of all campaigns not to engage in bullying or ugly personal attacks.”