Warren, Sanders Endorsed By Labor Leader Accused of Race, Age Discrimination

UNITE HERE chapter paid nearly $1 million to settle suit

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) / Getty Images
January 29, 2020

Presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) touted the endorsement of a local labor group whose co-president was found to have discriminated against workers based on their race and age.

UNITE HERE Local 11, which represents more than 30,000 hospitality workers, endorsed the progressive pair on Tuesday. Union co-president Ada Briceño said in a statement that Warren and Sanders "understand the needs of workers at UNITE HERE Local 11."

The candidates touted the endorsement on social media. Warren praised the union for fighting for "dignity on the job," while Sanders commended its "progressive values." The union, however, has faced legal trouble over accusations of workplace discrimination. When Briceño was president of UNITE HERE Local 681—which later merged with other chapters to form Local 11—a jury convicted the labor group of discrimination and illegal firing.

Warren and Sanders's embrace of Briceño's endorsement comes as Democrats scramble to marshal support from labor groups in a crowded primary field. Briceño also serves as vice president of UNITE HERE International, which represents more than 270,000 workers and has helped Democrats win in states such as Nevada and Arizona. The labor giant has spent more than $940,000 in the 2020 election cycle despite pledging to remain neutral in the primary, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Both presidential candidates have condemned workplace discrimination, with Warren promising to take executive action to fight it. Neither the Warren nor the Sanders campaigns responded to requests for comment.

UNITE HERE was forced to pay nearly $1 million to settle a 2003 lawsuit alleging that Briceño discriminated against workers based on their race and age. Briceño referred to non-Hispanic employees as "gringos" and disparaged their medical conditions, according to the suit. She also targeted older union workers, telling a union vice president, "I'm going to fire these f—ing old ladies, and we can get someone else for less money." She described employees who were fired as "old and slow and time to go." A California appeals court rejected the union's bid to reverse the jury verdict.

A spokeswoman for UNITED HERE declined to answer questions about Briceño's legal history, referring the Washington Free Beacon to a statement on the union's neutrality pledge and its "commitment to turbocharge our political organizing" in 2020. Local 11 did not return a request for comment about the endorsement or the 2003 lawsuit.

Labor watchdogs said politicians should do a better job of vetting their endorsements. Charlyce Bozzello, spokeswoman for the Center for Union Facts, said Local 11's record is at odds with the "progressive" values that Sanders and Warren praised in their announcements.

"Briceño's endorsement isn't something anyone should be proud of. She's faced allegations of race and age discrimination, while Unite Here Local 11, the union she represents, has seen dozens of unfair labor practice charges, including accusations that the union threatened an employee with reprisals for not supporting it," Bozzello said. "That's not the type of track record any public servant should want to be associated with."

Briceño, who collected more than $200,000 in compensation as Local 11 co-president in 2017 and 2018, is now running for the Democratic National Committee on a platform of inclusivity, despite her record of workplace discrimination. She has won establishment support for her campaign, including endorsements from California Democratic congressmen Gil Cisneros, Harley Rouda, and Mike Levin. If successful, Briceño would play a role in writing the Democratic party platform in 2020 and vote as a superdelegate at the July convention.