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7 Democratic Candidates Threaten To Boycott Debate Over Labor Dispute

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks during last month's presidential primary debate in Atlanta.
John Bazemore
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks during last month's presidential primary debate in Atlanta.

Updated at 5:35 p.m. ET

Amid a labor dispute at the site of next week's presidential primary debate, all seven Democratic candidates who made the stage are siding with unions and threatening not to participate in the event.

Candidates are scheduled to meet for the Democratic presidential debate on the Loyola Marymount University campus in Los Angeles on Dec. 19.

Workers represented by Unite Here Local 11 have been picketing since November. Union representatives say that Sodexo, the subcontractor that employs the more than 150 university food service workers, abruptly canceled scheduled negotiations. Workers are set to picket Thursday outside the debate venue.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of seven candidates set to appear onstage Thursday, was the first to signal that she would not cross the picket line.

".@UNITEHERE11 is fighting for better wages and benefits—and I stand with them. The DNC should find a solution that lives up to our party's commitment to fight for working people. I will not cross the union's picket line even if it means missing the debate," Warren tweeted on Friday.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders followed soon after, tweeting that he "will not be crossing their picket line" until the union reaches a deal with Sodexo.

Former Vice President Joe Biden also says he won't cross a picket line, adding on Twitter that "we've got to stand together...for affordable health care and fair wages."

Mayor Pete Buttigieg also tweetedthat he "will not cross their picket line."

"I take the debate stage to stand up for workers' rights, not to undermine them," he wrote.

And a spokesperson for Sen. Amy Klobuchar tweeted that the candidate told labor leaders in Miami Friday that she would also not participate in the debate without a resolution.

Candidate Andrew Yang also vowed not to cross the picket line to take part in the debate. "[T]here is nothing more core to the Democratic Party than the fight for working people," wrote Yang on Twitter.

Billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer also says he won't cross the picket line but that he believes the Democratic National Committee will find a solution before Thursday's debate.

Choosing to participate in the debate as workers picketed would be challenging for any Democratic candidate and would almost certainly antagonize organized labor, a core Democratic constituency.

The DNC's communication's director, Xochitl Hinojosa, said in a statement that the committee and the university had learned about the issue on Friday and is working to find a resolution.

"While LMU is not a party to the negotiations between Sodexo and Unite Here Local 11, Tom Perez would absolutely not cross a picket line and would never expect our candidates to either. We are working with all stakeholders to find an acceptable resolution that meets their needs and is consistent with our values and will enable us to proceed as scheduled with next week's debate," Hinojosa said.

In a statement to NPR, a Sodexo spokesperson said the company is "100% committed to reaching an agreement, and any statement that we have left the bargaining table is not accurate. We have been negotiating in good faith with the Unite Here Local 11 since December of last year with a goal to reach a new collective bargaining agreement that is equitable for everyone, including our employees, and we still intend to achieve such an agreement."

Ada Briceño, a co-president of Unite Here Local 11, told NPR that the union had reached out to all campaigns and sent a letter to the DNC.

"We felt that it would be imperative to let the candidates know that we would be holding a picket line on Thursday," Briceño said. "As you can tell, they are pledging their support of the workers and are not going to attend the DNC debate."

"I think it's imperative for wages and health care to be taken care of and our contract to be settled," Briceño said. "It has become clear to us that the company Sodexo is not taking the workers seriously."

Unite Here is the national umbrella organization for the powerful Culinary Union in Nevada. Biden, Warren and Sanders all made stops in Las Vegas this week to speak with Unite Here union members in one-on-one town halls. The sheer amount of time they spent with the group is a testament to its political clout. The culinary union is arguably the most powerful labor union in Nevada, home to roughly 60,000 members; and an endorsement from the group could be key to winning the early voting state of Nevada.

In the 2016 caucuses, officially the group was neutral, but reports at the time said former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pressed the culinary union to turn out its members. And that led Hillary Clinton to pull off a narrow win in Nevada.

Neither the Democratic National Committee nor Loyola Marymount University had an immediate response to interview requests.

This is the second time this cycle that Democratic presidential candidates have found their debate site roiled by a labor dispute. The December debate was originally slated to be held at UCLA.

It was relocated because the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3299had been calling for a boycott of speaking engagements at University of California campuses over "ongoing labor disputes over outsourcing, income inequality and alleged illegal labor processes."

Political reporter Asma Khalid contributed to this report.

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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.