Corporate America Criticized by 2020 Democrats at Nevada Forum

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nomination used a forum Saturday to criticize U.S. corporations for not doing enough to support their workers and called for more restrictions on companies that try to stifle union organizing.

The gathering, just east of the fabled Strip in Las Vegas, was sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It represented the most extensive single test yet of the 2020 field on issues relating to labor, a key constituency for the Democratic Party.

Corporate America Criticized by 2020 Democrats at Nevada Forum

McDonald’s Corp. in particular was targeted at the daylong event, with Senator Kamala Harris of California being the most direct in her criticism of the iconic American company.

“You can’t go around talking about the Golden Arches as a symbol of the best of America when you are not conducting yourself in the best way in terms of supporting the working people of America,” she told an audience of several hundred workers.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts received some of the strongest applause during a forum where the six candidates who made appearances often offered few specifics and frequently failed to even directly answer the questions asked.

Corporate America Criticized by 2020 Democrats at Nevada Forum

The Massachusetts senator criticized corporations for classifying workers as independent contractors to bar them from organizing. “Because once we’re independent contractors, as you know, you can’t get them organized,” she said. “So, how about we roll that one back.”

Warren also called out McDonald’s, which SEIU has tried to hold legally accountable for conditions in its franchised restaurants. “How about we hold McDonald’s responsible for what are in fact McDonald’s employees,” she said.

‘Fight For $15’

The company has been the top target of SEIU’s “Fight For $15” campaign, which demands union organizing rights as well as higher pay for workers in industries like fast food. SEIU has helped secure $15 wage laws in a number of cities and states, while seeking -- so far without success -- to also secure an agreement with the largest fast-food companies that would facilitate some form of union representation for workers at their chains.

McDonald’s didn’t respond to an e-mailed inquiry Saturday to its communications department. Earlier this year, the company announced it would no longer take part in efforts to lobby against laws raising minimum wages across the board.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told the audience that she strongly backed the “Fight For $15” movement and urged the creation of “higher stakes” to dissuade companies from union-busting.

Corporate America Criticized by 2020 Democrats at Nevada Forum

Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas suggested growth in the gap between the rich and poor has much to do with the decline of unions. “You can correlate the decline in union participation with the rise in income and wealth inequality in this country,” he said.

Declining Membership

Nationwide, 10.5 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to unions in 2018, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available, the rate was 20.1 percent.

Former Obama administration cabinet officer Julian Castro of Texas told the Las Vegas audience that he spent part of Friday meeting with homeless people in the city, including some living essentially underneath some casinos.

“It wasn’t lost on me, or anybody else there, that underneath hotels that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in one of the places that’s known around the world as a playground for people throughout this country and the world, that you have people who are living in deep poverty sleeping not even on the street, but in a drainage tunnel,” he said.

Corporate America Criticized by 2020 Democrats at Nevada Forum

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper argued that he understands the needs of workers better than most because he was once an unemployed geologist who opened a series of brew pubs.

“I’ve been someone who built a business from scratch, made sure that my workers had health insurance,” he said. “I am someone who really as mayor and as governor really went out of my way to help workers.”

20 Candidates

The fragmented Democratic presidential contest gives labor unions an opening to reassert their waning political influence as candidates claw for every advantage to break out of the pack. Organized labor has the potential to be especially powerful in Nevada, which has the highest rate of union membership of any of the four early primary and caucus states.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s entry into the campaign this week brought to 20 the number of candidates seeking the right to challenge President Donald Trump in the general election. The sprawling field offers unions a chance to try to play kingmaker with endorsements and gain favor for their issues in a contest where the first rounds of voting could be decided by the slimmest of margins.

Biden, who has strong ties to some unions and is well liked by many labor leaders, didn’t attend the forum. He highlighted his longstanding ties to organized labor during his campaign roll-out, and will appear Monday at a blue-collar themed event in Pittsburgh.

Maria Jacobi, an SEIU member who attended the forum, said she didn’t think O’Rourke directly answered the questions and she grit her teeth and expressed skepticism when asked what she thought about Biden.

“I’m still getting to know what he’s about," she said. The 46-year-old local government worker praised Klobuchar’s appearance, including her mention of having a grandfather who worked in a mine in northern Minnesota. “She was genuine and real and she has union roots,” she said.

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