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Democratic Presidential Candidates Threaten To Boycott Debate Over Labor Dispute


Seven Democratic presidential candidates qualified for next week's debate in Los Angeles. Now there's a chance that zero of them will show up. There's a labor dispute between food services workers and the contractor who employs them at Loyola Marymount University, which is hosting the debate. NPR political reporter Juana Summers is following the story and is here in the studio.

Hi, Juana.


SHAPIRO: Start by explaining the labor dispute at the heart of this. What's going on?

SUMMERS: So Unite Here Local 11 represents about 150 food service workers at Loyola Marymount, and the university subcontracts its food service operations to a company called Sodexo. Now, the union leaders say they've been in negotiations with Sodexo since March and that workers started picketing on campus last month. I spoke to one of Unite Here 11's co-presidents, and she told me that Sodexo abruptly canceled negotiations with them last week. So the union then reached out to presidential candidates, as well as the Democratic National Committee, to tell them that they plan to picket the same day that Democrats were set to take the debate stage.

SHAPIRO: And what did Sodexo say about this?

SUMMERS: We did hear back from a spokesperson from them a little bit ago, and I want to read you their statement. They say that Sodexo is 100% committed to reaching an agreement and any statement that we have left the bargaining table is not accurate. We've been negotiating in good faith since December of last year with the goal to reach a new collective bargaining agreement that is equitable for everyone, including our employees. And we still intend to achieve such agreement. That's Sodexo's spokesperson. But it's important to point out this is not the first time that Democrats' debate plans have been interrupted due to a labor dispute. This same debate was actually supposed to originally have been taking place at the University of California in Los Angeles, but those plans were scrapped because of stalled negotiations between the University of California system and a local union.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, last night was the deadline to qualify for the debate. Now all the candidates who made it are threatening to boycott. So what have you been hearing from their campaigns today?

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's right. So the first candidate out the gate was Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. And in a tweet, she said that the DNC should find a solution that lived up to Democrats' commitment to fight for working people. And she made clear that she would not cross the picket line, even if it meant missing that debate. And pretty quickly after that, we heard from all of the other candidates. Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer, Amy Klobuchar - seven candidates in total, all saying they will not cross that picket line.

SHAPIRO: So moderators might be debating amongst themselves.

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: How important is the union involved in this dispute, Unite Here?

SUMMERS: It is actually a really powerful and important union. Unite Here is the national umbrella organization for the powerful culinary union in Nevada. And if you recall, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were all in Las Vegas this week speaking with Unite Here union members at town halls. And the fact that they're investing that much time goes to show just how much clout this group has. For - in Nevada, the culinary union is arguably the most powerful labor union in the state, and it's home to about 60,000 members. So an endorsement from a group like that could mean victory in Nevada.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. You mentioned that Elizabeth Warren sort of laid this at the feet of the DNC. What are they saying about it?

SUMMERS: We got a statement from Xochitl Hinojosa, who is a spokeswoman from the DNC. And in that statement, she says that the DNC and Loyola Marymount - they just learned about this issue earlier today, that while the university is not a party to the negotiations between Unite Here and Sodexo, DNC chairman Tom Perez would absolutely not cross a picket line and would not expect their candidates to either. They say they're working with all the stakeholders involved. But to kind of cut to the chase here, we don't actually know what's going to happen. And the DNC doesn't have a lot of time to resolve this. This debate is scheduled for next Thursday, so that means they have less than a week to figure out some sort of an agreement that - to either take this debate somewhere else or to find an agreement between these two parties so the Democratic candidates feel comfortable being able to go there and debate and not cross a picket line.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Juana Summers, thank you.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.