- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

LAS VEGAS (AP) - After throwing its weight behind Barack Obama in his contentious 2008 primary race against Hillary Clinton, the influential union representing about 57,000 Las Vegas casino workers is sitting this Democratic contest out.

The Culinary Union announced in January that it wouldn’t endorse a candidate before Nevada’s late-February caucuses, in spite of Democratic presidential hopefuls’ concerted efforts to woo the group’s minority-heavy membership. Culinary leaders say they have more local priorities on their mind, including bringing workers at Station Casinos, the Trump International Hotel and the Palms into their ranks.

“In reality, right now, we’ve been focused on organizing,” union secretary-treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline told the Las Vegas Sun (http://bit.ly/1RRAKbY).

In 2008, the president of the union’s parent organization, Unite Here, said the group would do everything in its power to elect Obama because he would “bring working Americans with him.” Clinton ultimately won the popular vote in the Nevada caucuses, while Obama won the delegate count.

Eight years later, the union says it’s still focused on turning out its members to vote, but wants to dedicate its energies to the general election rather than the increasingly divisive Democratic race between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Candidates have courted union members in the lead-up to the caucuses. Bernie Sanders supporters have been so zealous to persuade members to their cause that they entered employee-only dining rooms at Las Vegas Strip casinos, prompting a rebuke from the union and an apology from the campaign.

Clinton and Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley appeared this fall at union rallies at Trump’s hotel. The Republican front runner was criticized at the events, but the union’s focus was to spur a vote among the resort’s workers on whether to unionize.

The Culinary Union announced in December that a majority of eligible workers at the Trump hotel had voted in favor of unionizing, although hotel executives objected to the vote later that month.

The union is also holding fast to a feud with Station Casinos, a chain whose primary focus is local Las Vegas-area residents. The group has rallied outside of Station’s non-unionized casinos in the past, but has recently turned to criticizing the company’s ties to Deutsche Bank.

Deutsche Bank owns 25 percent of Station Casinos, but was hit with a $2.5 billion fine last year for its connection to an interest-rigging scandal.

Culinary’s numbers are down from where they were before the recession hit, but growth - most recently from getting the Cosmopolitan casino workforce to unionize - has bucked a national trend of declining union membership.

About 6.6 percent of workers in the private sector were union members in 2014, down from 7.9 percent in 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Culinary’s strength comes in spite of the fact that Nevada is a right-to-work state, meaning employees can’t be forced to pay union dues or required to join a union just because a labor group represents people in their workplace.

“To represent so many workers in a right-to-work state, I think, shows their ability to organize,” Ruben Garcia, a UNLV professor with expertise in labor law, told the newspaper. “And, of course, their political organization was also shown by the fact that their endorsement is very coveted.”

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Information from: Las Vegas Sun, http://www.lasvegassun.com

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