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Stakes high in Vegas as Democrats court Latino casino workers

Andrew MARSZAL
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Las Vegas is by far the largest city in Nevada, and a significant chunk of its workforce -- some 60,000 employees -- belong to the influential Culinary Union

Las Vegas is by far the largest city in Nevada, and a significant chunk of its workforce -- some 60,000 employees -- belong to the influential Culinary Union (AFP Photo/Mark RALSTON)

Las Vegas (AFP) - With the grand prize of their party's nomination up for grabs, Democratic candidates have converged on the Las Vegas Strip, where fortunes are won and lost on a daily basis.

But rather than a lucky hand or roll of the dice, it is the Strip's casino croupiers, bartenders and maids -- the majority Latino -- that could determine who walks away with the jackpot after Saturday's caucuses in Nevada.

Candidates including Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg flocked this week to support a boisterous protest outside the Palm Casino, owned by the union-busting, Trump-backing billionaire Fertitta brothers.

"This is a union town, and the idea these guys are able to do what they're doing is absolutely outrageous," said Biden, as music blared and protesters dressed as waiters and chefs danced by.

It is little surprise that so many leading Democrats showed up.

Vegas is by far the largest city in this western state of three million, and a significant chunk of its workforce -- some 60,000 employees -- belong to the influential Culinary Union.

Like Nevada, its members are highly ethnically diverse, including 178 nationalities and 40 languages.

These are exactly the demographics Biden is banking on to juice up his flagging campaign, and that Buttigieg needs to win over after success in mainly white Iowa and New Hampshire.

"From downtown to the Mandalay Bay, we represent cooks, casino porters, cocktail servers, bartenders," said union worker Jose Ribera, 64, referring to a hotel-casino complex.

"If (the candidates) are our friends they are coming. If not, they are not coming."

- Sinister threats -

But two were conspicuous by their absence -- frontrunner Bernie Sanders and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is skipping early votes including Nevada altogether.

Sanders, who has surged into a commanding lead in Nevada polls, generally enjoys strong support from Latinos, who represent 29 per cent of the state's population.

But he fell afoul of the union this week after it published a "scorecard" of candidates' policies appearing to criticize his sweeping healthcare reform plans.

Prominent female union leaders were targeted with a barrage of what they called sinister threats via phone and social media -- and had little doubt of the source.

"From followers of Senator Sanders," secretary-treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline told AFP, describing the messages as "physical threats, practically."

"That is an intimidation to women of color -- no phone calls, no texts, no threats to the white guys," she added.

While Sanders condemned the attacks, Nicaraguan-born Arguello-Kline said the response was insufficient.

Meanwhile, protesters voiced fears that their coveted healthcare plans -- the product of decades of negotiations -- would be ripped up under Sanders' universal healthcare proposal.

"I'm worried about that," said Ribera. "If we have to give away our insurance -- which we had to fight for for 85 years -- it's too much. We cannot."

- 'Disrespectful' -

Meanwhile, Bloomberg's absence from Nevada was viewed dimly by many protesters who spoke with AFP.

"It's disrespectful to us and the other candidates," said pastor Sylvester Rogers, 79.

"He should be in the race from the beginning, like every other candidate. He needs to see what our communities are about."

Although Bloomberg is not here either, his enormous spending on campaign advertising has fueled a rise in his polling numbers that has sent him into the top tier of candidates nationally.

Like a plucky gambler trying to win big by betting against the Vegas casinos' billionaire owners, there was a sense among some protesters that the odds are unfavorably stacked.

"Billionaires will be billionaires," said Rudy Oybal, a 49-year-old bartenders' union organizer, adding he would support any Democratic nominee to defeat Trump. "What am I going to do?"