Democrats rush to back union as labor dispute threatens presidential debate

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Who’s up for a debate in the parking lot?

A labor dispute involving food workers at the site of this week’s Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles is threatening to derail the proceedings, with candidates saying they don’t plan on crossing the picket line even if it means skipping the event.

The Democratic National Committee said Monday that it is hopeful a deal can be struck before Thursday’s debate. But the race among the 2020 contenders to stand with the local union involved in the dispute illustrates the lengths they are willing to go to avoid even the appearance of undervaluing workers’ rights.

“It’s a really bad look to cross a picket line,” said Robert Bruno, director of the labor education program at the University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations. “It clearly signals how important organized labor’s support is to all of the candidates.”

DNC Chairman Tom Perez was in touch with various stakeholders over the weekend, spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said.



“Tom Perez handled several labor disputes as labor secretary, and he understands how much of a priority it is to get people back at the table. We expect it to happen promptly,” Ms. Hinojosa said Monday.

UNITE HERE Local 11, the union that says it represents 150 cooks, dishwashers, cashiers and servers at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is trying to restart negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement and planned to picket the candidates at the debate.

All seven candidates who qualified for the debate indicated that they didn’t plan to cross the picket line.

“The DNC should find a solution that lives up to our party’s commitment to fight for working people,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the first 2020 candidate to threaten a boycott, said in a Twitter post. “I will not cross the union’s picket line even if it means missing the debate.”

In addition to Ms. Warren, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang have met the polling and fundraising requirements to qualify for the debate.

All of them have voiced some level of support for the workers in the dispute.

Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro are among those who didn’t qualify for the debate, but they issued public statements of support for the union.

“No candidate for the Democratic nomination should cross a picket line,” Mr. Castro tweeted.

UNITE HERE Local 11 thanked the candidates for standing with them and indicated they hoped to reach an agreement before the debate.

The union said it has been negotiating since March with Sodexo, a food service management company that contracts with LMU, on a new collective bargaining agreement. It said the company abruptly canceled negotiations in recent days, but a spokesperson for Sodexo said the company is “100% committed” to reaching an agreement and any statement that its negotiators have left the bargaining table isn’t accurate.

“We have been negotiating in good faith with the UNITE HERE Local 11 since December of last year with a goal to reach a new collective bargaining agreement that is equitable for everyone, including our employees, and we still intend to achieve such an agreement,” the spokesperson said Monday.

The university issued a statement saying it encouraged the parties to come to an agreement while making it clear that it is not part of the negotiations.

“LMU is proud to host the DNC Presidential Debate and is committed to ensuring that the university is a rewarding place to learn, live, and work,” the university said.

The DNC originally considered the University of California, Los Angeles for the debate site but relocated amid a labor dispute on that campus as well.

The back-and-forth is taking place against the backdrop of a race in which all of the candidates are vying to appear the most labor-friendly.

The Democrats, notably the top tier of contenders, have laid out “robust” platforms dealing with labor and workers’ rights, Mr. Bruno said.

“They are the most elaborate I have seen in a very long time,” he said. “Given that real commitment, it’s very clear that they see organized labor as part of that constituency base that they have to win.”

The staffs of a number of campaigns have formed their own unions, and the candidates are careful to highlight union-friendly provisions such as collective bargaining rights when laying out policy priorities on issues such as trade and climate change.

Various candidates have also joined picket lines, including protests from McDonald’s workers amid labor disputes.

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