(Adds context, comment from Pete Buttigieg)
By Sharon Bernstein
LAS VEGAS, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Retired letter carrier Leslie Maxwell Burton has a message for Democratic presidential contenders campaigning in the early voting state of Nevada this weekend: She will not vote for anyone who tries to take away her hard-won union health plan.
Labor’s concerns about healthcare and other issues were in the spotlight in Nevada as most of the 18 candidates seeking the party’s 2020 nomination crisscrossed the area around Las Vegas in a whirlwind of campaigning culminating with the state party’s annual fundraising reception on Sunday night.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who holds a healthy lead in opinion polls in the state, brought his folksy style to parents and teachers at an elementary school in North Las Vegas on Saturday night, while U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts addressed a crowd at a high school.
The crowded Democratic field’s newest entrant, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, spent Sunday afternoon at a center for veterans. Democrats are vying for the right to face Republican President Donald Trump in next year’s election.
Sunday night, Nevada Democratic activists, energized from recent wins in which the party won all statewide offices except one and majorities in both houses of the legislature, whooped and climbed on chairs as the 14 candidates came on stage together before making speeches.
Union support is so crucial for Democrats in Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucuses that Warren, who is tied for second place in the state with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, retooled her Medicare for All health proposal to address union concerns just before the weekend.
The third state to hold its nominating contest, Nevada’s union membership of about 14% of workers in 2018 is higher than the national average of 10.5%.
Most unions have not yet endorsed a candidate. Democrats are courting them intensely, offering plans to protect their contracts, raise the minimum wage, expand healthcare and in diverse states such as Nevada, ease the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.
Labor-friendly candidates Sanders and Warren are facing a tough sell with some union members who fear losing their negotiated benefits under the two candidates’ proposals to eliminate private health insurance and move all Americans to the government’s Medicare health insurance plan that covers people 65 and older.
“If they come in and try to strip everything away, that’s just going to make people mad,” voter Maxwell Burton said.
Democrats also will need labor support to hold onto Nevada in the November 2020 election. Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the battleground state by just 2.5 percentage points in 2016.
In addition to fundraising, unions can mount large grassroots operations, with members knocking on doors, holding rallies and boosting turnout by bringing friends, families and colleagues to the polls.
Nevada Democrats are holding early caucus voting in union halls next year, and the party’s state chair is a former union organizer.
Leaders from Nevada’s largest labor organization, the 60,000-member Culinary Union Local 226, said they made clear to the Democratic presidential field that protecting their health plans is a top priority. Members of the state umbrella group AFL-CIO and the president of the Laborers Union Local 872 have echoed those concerns, and the message was not lost on the candidates.
“If you are a Culinary worker who negotiated a health plan you like you ought to have the right to keep it,” declared South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, to roars from the crowd.
Biden, who held a 10-percentage-point lead over Warren and Sanders in a Nov. 4 poll by the Nevada Independent, promised to preserve union health coverage, aggressively prosecute employers who violate labor laws and increase access to unions for working people.
Warren, appearing to respond to union concerns, promised to protect union health coverage under Medicare for All.
Representatives from labor would participate in a commission charged with setting up the program, and non-profit union clinics would be allowed to keep providing care, she said in her latest plan. (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)