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Michael J. Mishak

Culinary union pushes hard

18 January 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- As the Culinary Union worked feverishly this week to persuade its members to support Barack Obama, a prickly question arose: What is the difference between tough political tactics and unethical, or illegal, intimidation?

Some Culinary members say they have felt intimidated by the pushy approach of some organizers.

But labor experts say a vigorous back-and-forth is the norm as unions work to spread the word of an endorsement -- and the tactics don't cross the legal line of voter intimidation unless workers are threatened.

None of the Culinary members interviewed by the Sun claimed to have been threatened by union activists gathering pledge cards for Obama. Some, however, were told they would have to caucus for Obama, period.

If so, it raises the question of where a union draws the line between hard-nosed politicking and intimidation.

"One person's intimidation is another person's persuasion," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Labor experts said that although member-on-member intimidation prevailed a half-century ago, it's exceedingly rare today, especially in the context of a caucus, in which voters must show up at a particular place and time and publicly declare their support for a candidate. In other words, caucusgoers need to be highly motivated to turn out. Intimidating the voter pool would be counterproductive.

"That would be stupid," said Peter Francia, a political scientist at Eastern Carolina University who has studied labor unions. "It would alienate the people you need to mobilize your political muscle."

Organizers cross the legal line, experts said, when they threaten a worker's union status or job security.

"Those sorts of practices, with the very exceptional outlier, are not common," said Robert Bruno, professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois. "It would be deeply offensive to the labor movement if they were being practiced in such a high-profile event."

Having endorsed Obama just last week, 10 days before the Nevada caucus, organizers are working overtime and making the hard sell. Some members -- including ones identified to the Sun by the Clinton campaign -- find the approach off-putting.

Take, for instance, the case of Ruben Beltran, a Culinary member and Clinton volunteer who helps set up conventions at Mandalay Bay.

Union representatives, he said, are telling employees they must caucus for Obama on Saturday, making it sound more like a demand than a suggestion. Beltran said workers feel intimidated because the union holds sway over their jobs.

"It's intimidation because the workers are not knowledgeable," he said. "They don't know their rights."

Beltran told the Sun he was not threatened, though, and plans to back Clinton.

Then there's Maria Garcia, who works in the housekeeping department at Wynn Las Vegas.

Her complaint: A union rep removed a pile of Clinton fliers from the cafeteria and asked workers where they came from.

She said many members support Clinton and would be following their conscience Saturday.

Most troubling is the case of Sylvia Antuna, a cook at Paris Las Vegas, who said she was filling out a voter registration form in the employee cafeteria when two union reps approached her about Obama. When she told them she wasn't sure about caucusing for him, one rep took her registration form, telling her that she couldn't participate Saturday if she wasn't supporting Obama. (Antuna is undecided.)

Marie Angers, a fellow cook, and her son, Matt DeFalco, a kitchen runner, said they witnessed the incident and engaged the organizers in a heated discussion. Angers is a Clinton backer.

Both said they saw one organizer hand Antuna an Obama pledge card, telling her she had to sign it to participate in the caucus.

In an interview, Antuna said she didn't recall the pledge card, but said the incident was upsetting. On reflection, she said the organizers spoke broken English, adding that the incident could have been a misunderstanding.

Still, deceiving members about election rules is unethical, said Taylor Dark, a professor of labor and politics at California State University, Los Angeles.

"I would expect the union to be putting a lot of emotional and psychological pressure on members. That's what unions do," Dark said. "Passions are running high. But just because someone says they feel intimidated, it's not an indication that they are being intimidated in a truly unethical fashion."

Asked Thursday about allegations of voter intimidation, D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union, said members were having "vigorous debate" throughout Las Vegas.