Democratic debate, once in turmoil, to move forward as planned after labor union reaches agreement

UNITE HERE Local 11 and Sodexo reached a tentative contract agreement.

The Democratic primary debate slated for Thursday will move forward as planned, after negotiators announced Tuesday they had reached a tentative contract agreement in a labor dispute entangling Loyola Marymount University, the site of the final matchup of the year.

"The Democratic National Committee and Tom Perez worked hard to help bring the situation to a positive resolution," the statement said, ending the last-minute drama that was poised to potentially upend the nationally-televised event.

The union, UNITE HERE Local 11, which announced the breakthrough, had enlisted the top-polling seven candidates qualified to participate in Thursday's face-off in their fight for better wages and benefits -- with the slate of contenders announcing late last week they "won't cross the union's picket line" to participate amid the impasse.

At a press conference in Los Angeles Tuesday, DNC Chairman Tom Perez, flanked by workers with Local 11, suggested the agreement embodied the ethos of the Democratic Party, saying, "This is really an important and wonderful day for workers for the labor movement, and for all of those who believe in the importance of workers and employers coming together through collective bargaining to forge win-win solutions. This agreement is also an important reminder of our values as a Democratic Party."

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the first presidential candidate engaged on the union's dispute, called the agreement, "a huge victory for American workers."

"It is just the beginning. When I am President of the United States, we will put more power back in the hands of the people and the people will get the wages, the benefits, and the respect they deserve," she said at the press conference.

The move by the White House hopefuls to potentially skip the debate, while surprising for the sponsors, PBS NewsHour and POLITICO, as well as the DNC, aligns with the party's ideals, and the contenders' emphasis this cycle on courting the union vote, which will be crucial to clinching the Democratic nomination in such a crowded field.

But still, it injected a fresh round of uncertainty into the sixth matchup, as the 2020 primary enters the crucial weeks before early voting begins.

Warren first announced on Twitter Friday afternoon, "I will not cross the union's picket line even if it means missing the debate," and her six other competitors sharing the debate stage, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, billionaire Tom Steyer, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, quickly followed suit.

The undercurrent of their sentiments is the party's long-standing allegiance to organized labor-- a connection which developed during the Great Depression and the era of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Instead of sparring over their policy platforms and crystallizing their differences on philosophy and governing before a national audience, the candidates were adamant through the weekend that they would sit out of the debate if it meant crossing a picket line.

The national party intervened in the dispute after the Democrats signaled their unwavering commitment to the union workers, even at the risk of their own presidential ambitions, as they sought to avoid possibly closing out the year without a debate and the national exposure that comes with it.

Perez personally spent the last few days working the phones and spoke with all stakeholders repeatedly to get the parties to come to the table, according to a DNC official.

The former labor secretary under President Barack Obama facilitated a meeting on Sunday between LMU and Unite Here, and successfully brought Sodexo and Unite Here to the table on Monday, the official added.

Perez extolled the resolution, saying in a statement Tuesday, "Every worker deserves fair wages and benefits. That’s why I was proud to help bring all stakeholders to the table, including UNITE HERE Local 11, Sodexo, and Loyola Marymount University, to reach a deal that meets their needs and supports workers. I commend Sodexo and UNITE HERE for coming together in good faith to forge an agreement that is a win-win for everyone, and I appreciate the constructive engagement of LMU leadership which was indispensable to the resolution of this negotiation."

The DNC notified the presidential campaigns Tuesday about the latest development and a formal vote will occur later Tuesday to allow for a smooth path to Thursday's matchup.

Behind the picket line is a labor union representing 150 workers in the food services industry, including cooks, dishwashers, cashiers, and servers, who are contracted by the company Sodexo -- a global services company -- to prepare and serve meals at Loyola Marymount.

Sodexo, the company once at odds with the union workers, praised the resolution.

"We are pleased to confirm that, after many months of continuous negotiations, we have reached a tentative agreement with UNITE HERE Local 11 on behalf of Sodexo employees at Loyola Marymount University," a company spokesperson said. "We are very happy our positive working relationship can continue with improved benefits and wages for our employees on the campus of LMU. We have been a member of the LMU community since 1975 and are excited to continue working with our partners on campus to welcome the Democratic presidential debate."

The debate's future was put in jeopardy after the union sent a letter, obtained by ABC News, to the presidential contenders on Friday, informing the Democrats of the labor dispute and sparking a potential mass walk-out on the debate.

"We want to make sure you are aware that there is a labor dispute involving our union on that campus," the letter reads. "While we remain hopeful that the labor dispute can be resolved before next Thursday, we want to be clear that if the situation remains unresolved there could be picketing on the evening of the debate. Any assistance you can provide in resolving this dispute would be greatly appreciated."

The DNC and Loyola Marymount were not made aware of the issue until after the letter was sent, a source familiar with negotiations told ABC News.

The DNC announced late Friday they were working "with all stakeholders" to come to a resolution ahead of the debate.

"The DNC and LMU learned of this issue earlier today, and it is our understanding this matter arose within the last day," said Xochitl Hinojosa, communications director for the DNC in a statement Friday. "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."

For Loyola Marymount, the campus at the center of the picket line, the school made clear they were "not a party to the negotiations" in a statement released Friday.

Local 11 had been in negotiations with Sodexo since March over a collective bargaining agreement as they seek to negotiate better contracts, including better wages and health care benefits. Workers, along with students, had been picketing on campus since November, according to the union, after Sodexo abruptly canceled scheduled contract negotiations earlier this month

This is not the first union-related hurdle the DNC has faced for the site of the December debate. In early November, the DNC announced it was no longer hosting the primary debate at the University of California, Los Angeles, the original location of the match-up, over a labor dispute with a local union.

"In response to concerns raised by the local organized labor community in Los Angeles, we have asked our media partners to seek an alternative site for the December debate. We will be in touch with more information when it is available," the DNC wrote in an email informing the campaigns.

The debate was moved to Loyola Marymount only days later, in an announcement by the DNC.

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