What ‘Medicare for All’ Means After a Six-Year Strike for Health Benefits

LAS VEGAS — They each remember that moment, just after dawn on a September day in 1991, when they walked out of the Frontier Hotel and Casino. There was music and singing — “Solidarity forever,” went the song. That first day, the atmosphere was more like a celebration than a work protest. But the strike would go on to last six years, four months and 10 days — one of the longest labor disputes in American history.

There were fights along the picket line, with tourists throwing water and food at the strikers, who were more than willing to fight back. There were dozens of arrests. So much time went by that 107 babies were born to pickets and 17 people died during the strike.

They were fighting for wages, job security, pensions — and health care. In many ways those are the same key issues in the presidential campaign that comes on Saturday to Nevada, where health care has taken center stage in the contest, with Bernie Sanders forcefully pushing for a “Medicare for All” plan that would effectively eliminate private health care insurance. And in Las Vegas, talking about health care means talking about the Culinary Workers Union, the largest and most powerful union in the state.

The roughly 60,000 members of the union’s Local 226 rarely pay out of pocket for routine medical care. They can undergo surgery without receiving a hefty surprise bill months later. They can visit the same one-stop medical clinic for urgent care, vision, dental and the pharmacy. The clinic was a regular stop for many of the 2020 candidates.

So one way to understand why the leadership of the Culinary Union is fighting so hard against Medicare-for-all proposals is to look back to the 1990s.

The Frontier, one of the first casinos on what is now simply known as the Strip, had recently been sold to new owners. The Western-themed casino was popular for made-from-scratch baked goods and food.

Gloria Hernandez knew it best for something else: Working there meant she could become a member of the Culinary Union, which would give her medical benefits that were far better than what her husband had through his job.

“You knew immediately that when you started working there that you would get health insurance because this was a union hotel,” Ms. Hernandez said. She knew what it was like to be a member of a union in Mexico, where she was part of the government workers’ union.

Today, Frontier strikers have an almost mythic presence within the Culinary Union here — seen as exemplars of people who know how to fight effectively. Ms. Hernandez is now an organizer for the union. But while she comes down enthusiastically on the side of keeping their current health insurance plan, some of her fellow pickets have reached the opposite conclusion.

Terry Lemley, 59, has not one but two Sanders lawn signs in front of her house. During the strike, Ms. Lemley’s job was taking attendance on the line, helping to track that there were enough people to keep it going around the clock. Any Frontier employee who showed up at the picket line for 30 hours a week received $200 in strike pay. That was not enough to make ends meet, so most people found second jobs.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Ms. Lemley said, sitting at her kitchen table one afternoon this past week. “But what we fought for, everybody should have. I don’t know why I would not want to give it to everybody.”

Once the strike ended in 1998, Ms. Lemley returned to her job as a cocktail waitress, a position she kept until the hotel shut down a decade later. She briefly had health insurance through Obamacare, she said, but has been uninsured for the past several years.

“I’ve seen both. I know what it is to do without,” she said. “Why would anyone in the union wish that on anyone else?”

Sonja Washington, 58, marched alongside Ms. Lemley for years, initially bringing her own children to the picket line. After getting arrested on the line, however, Ms. Washington said she decided to leave her children at home. Those children, who are now adults, spent their childhood with health care provided by the culinary health insurance program, Ms. Washington said. And Ms. Washington treasures her care.

“It’s terrific, but why I am going to stop there?” she said, sitting in Ms. Lemley’s kitchen. “The union taught me how to fight. So I want to be out there fighting for everybody.”

As a union organizer on the Strip, Elodia Muniz also views her work as fighting for more than just herself. “We are still over there and when we’re fighting, we’re not fighting for just us,” Ms. Muniz said in an interview at the Culinary Union headquarters this past week.

But Ms. Muniz is loath to view health insurance the same way as Ms. Lemley and Ms. Washington. When Mr. Sanders came to speak to the union late last year, Ms. Muniz stood up and forcefully asked how he would protect their insurance. Mr. Sanders replied by suggesting that members would have more money in their paychecks if they were not negotiating with employers over health care. Ms. Muniz was unimpressed.

“We like to keep what we have, what is real, what is true,” she said. “Not what we don’t know what it will be — it’s like a wish.”

Ms. Muniz and Ms. Hernandez raised children together on the picket line; Ms. Hernandez’s youngest son was born just days after the strike began. As the children grew, they would frequently visit the picket line, learning the union songs and crossing the street to ride in an elevator for entertainment.

“It was 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no matter what the weather was,” Ms. Hernandez recalled. “We have to be over there.”

The choices they gave the owners were sign, sell or shut down, Ms. Hernandez recalled.

“We wanted to have respect,” she said. “We knew we can have power together. We want to understand that.”

Though she feels lucky to have stayed healthy, Ms. Hernandez has watched other members of her family struggle with their health care needs. Her mother had Medicaid, and Ms. Hernandez watched with alarm as she struggled to find doctors and visit specialists.

“I don’t want that, no,” she said. “I want to have a choice. It’s like someone gives you a choice of the car — you want a Lexus or you want something less than that? Of course you want the nicer thing. It’s a big difference. You bet I will do anything I can to keep this because it’s a big difference.”

Ms. Lemley links her passion over the Sanders campaign directly to her time on the picket line. It was the union, she said, that taught her how to collectively fight for others. Having already cast her ballot in the early caucus, Ms. Lemley was planning to enjoy this weekend as a kind of honeymoon. On Friday, she married the man she met on the picket line decades ago.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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