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Democratic Debate to Go Forward Amid Progress in Labor Dispute

All seven candidates slated to participate said they wouldn’t cross a picket line, but a tentative deal has been reached

Signage for the sixth Democratic presidential candidates' debate on December 19, 2019.

Signage for the sixth Democratic presidential candidates' debate on December 19, 2019.

Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press

The union representing 150 cooks, dishwashers, cashiers, and servers at Southern California’s Loyola Marymount University has reached a, agreement with the multinational corporation that employs them, breaking a labor impasse that threatened to derail Thursday’s Democratic debate.

The three-year deal, which was ratified by the union members on Tuesday, includes a 25% increase in compensation, a 50% drop in health-care costs, and increased job security for workers, the union said. “I am thrilled that we were able to reach an agreement, and that the candidate debate can continue as scheduled,” Angela Fisher, a prep cook at LMU, said in a statement. “I want to thank the Democratic candidates who stood with us and the Democratic party that helped us win.”

A relatively small number of workers were able to throw the presidential primary into chaos in large part because of a concerted push by 2020 candidates — Warren, Sanders and Castro, most notably — to strengthen ties between labor and the party. Hillary Clinton received endorsements from the major unions (including UNITE HERE), in 2016, but despite that official support, voters from union households were split. Donald Trump outperformed previous Republican nominees nearly closing the gap with Democrats among that group.

UNITE HERE has not announced which candidate it will endorse in 2020, but the union’s leadership singled Elizabeth Warren out for praise at a press conference on Tuesday, calling the Massachusetts senator a “hero” for raising awareness about the labor dispute and ultimately contributing to its resolution.

The deal was the product of emergency negotiations on Monday among representatives from UNITE HERE Local 11, the food-service company Sodexo, the university president, and the chair of the Democratic National Committee. All seven Democratic candidates who qualified for Thursday’s debate had said they would not cross the picket line in solidarity with the workers, creating uncertainty around the party’s final debate of 2019.

The DNC announced the provisional agreement Tuesday morning in a statement from committee chair Tom Perez: “We are the party that lifts up working families and defends the right to organize, and we’re excited to showcase that commitment at our debate on Thursday at Loyola Marymount University.”

Sodexo confirmed the agreement a few hours later. In a statement, spokesman Enrico Dinges said the company was “very happy our positive working relationship can continue with improved benefits and wages for our employees on the campus of LMU.”

UNITE HERE represents 32,000 hotel and food-service workers in California and Arizona, and the union’s membership consists mainly of women of color and immigrants. The workers and Sodexo have been negotiating a new contract since March, shortly before their previous deal expired in April. According to a representative for the union, the company pulled out of negotiations last week amid an impasse over wages and health care. (The union declined to identify specific points of contention.) 

Last Friday, three union co-presidents sent letters to the presidential candidates, informing them of the ongoing dispute, the pickets that had already occurred on the campus last month, and the potential for a picket on the night of the debate itself.

“Workers throughout Los Angeles struggle to survive in our city, where housing costs are skyrocketing and pushing more and more working people and their families toward housing insecurity or homelessness,” UNITE HERE co-presidents Susan Minato, Ada Briceno, and Kurt Petersen wrote. “Our members at LMU are no exception and, in a workplace that does not provide year-round work, decent yearly wage increases and affordable health care are of particular importance. While we remain hopeful that the labor dispute can be resolved before next Thursday, we want to be clear that if the situation remains unresolved there could be picketing on the evening of the debate.”

In a second letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Sunday, the union credited her decision to publicly declare that she would not cross a picket line for the debate as critical to getting Sodexo back to the bargaining table: “On behalf of the more than 30,000 members of UNITE HERE Local 11, we want to thank you for your support of the 150 Sodexo workers at LMU. Due to your decision to not cross a picket line, Sodexo is now returning to the table this week in advance of the scheduled Democratic debate. We are headed into these negotiations hopeful that we can reach a just settlement that will provide the economic security all people deserve for themselves and their families.”

Warren was the first to speak out publicly about the dispute, followed by Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Joe Biden, Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. Julian Castro, who did not qualify for the debate, also spoke out.

The DNC already had moved the December debate from the University of California-Los Angeles due to a separate labor dispute.

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