Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks at a forum on labor issues on Saturday in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)
Opinion writer

LAS VEGAS — On Saturday, the Service Employees International Union and the Center for American Progress Action Fund held a National Forum on Wages and Working People in Las Vegas, with several 2020 Democratic candidates in attendance. At the forum, Tichina Haywood, a night-shift hospital patient care technician from Chicago, stood up to tell Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that she had recently quit her job. She was, she said, unable to continue to handle the pressure of assisting a nurse with up to 16 infectious patients for 12 hours at a time, for which she received $13.13 an hour. Her employer fought back attempts at unionization, which would have allowed Haywood and fellow employees to band together to improve their working conditions and pay. “I loved my job," Haywood said. “The thing is, my job didn’t love me.”

A recent poll found slightly more than half of Americans say they are satisfied with their employment. But it’s also true that many if not most jobs, like Haywood’s, don’t always reciprocate our affection. Work can feel like a one-sided relationship, one in which the employee does the vast majority of the giving. Salaries, essentially stagnant for decades, barely keep pace with inflation. Job stability, especially for nonunion workers, is far from robust. The gig economy, pitched to Americans as a more flexible schedule and/or as a “side hustle,” is unsteady and unpredictable, and management can change reimbursements essentially on a whim. Many employers fight attempts at unionization with everything they’ve got.

SEIU and CAP jointly hosted the Saturday event as a way of bringing issues of pay and labor organization to the forefront of the 2020 presidential campaign, in the hopes that we can restore balance to this often unequal relationship. Over the course of the five-hour forum, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), former secretary of housing and urban development Julián Castro, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) did their best to convince the audience that they had received the message. (Neither former vice president Joe Biden nor Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont attended the event.)

Nevada, it must be said, is an apt location for this conversation, and not simply because its caucus will come third on the Democratic calendar. It has one of the fastest growth rates of any state, driven by plentiful jobs. There’s a strong union presence, led by the Culinary Workers Union, where the local representing the famed Las Vegas Strip is majority-minority. But at the same time, it remains a right-to-work state, and while the state’s new Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, is likely to sign a minimum-wage increase this year, the current minimum is still currently $7.25 an hour for employees who receive health insurance through work, and $8.25 for those who do not. The legislation would raise those figures, over several years, to $11 and $12 respectively — a far cry from the $15 many liberals have sought.

Again and again on Saturday, the candidates pledged to make it easier for workers in both traditional and gig economy jobs to unionize, and said they supported an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Middle-class income stagnation, free or reduced college tuition, slowing the rise of health-care costs, paid family leave, access to child care, as well as increasing the wages and job protections for human caretaking work — these all came up repeatedly. So did plans to protect the “dreamers,” and offer up a plan to get them citizenship, as well as to revamp and humanize the immigration process.

Harris called out McDonald’s: “You can’t go around talking about the golden arches as a symbol of the best of America when you are not conducting yourself in the best way in terms of supporting the working people of America.” (Sounds tough, but it’s worth noting McDonald’s recently came out and said it no longer opposed efforts to raise the minimum wage.) Klobuchar touted a commitment to beefing up the nation’s infrastructure and taking on monopolies. (No, no one asked her about the reports that she treats her own staff poorly.) Both O’Rourke and Hickenlooper pointed out that selling the minimum wage involves convincing employers of the benefits, with the latter also promoting a minimum wage that would go higher than $15 an hour in parts of the country with a higher cost of living. Castro pointed out that the gig economy all too often involved people committing to a company all but full-time and not receiving the benefits of a full-time employee in return.

But it all felt scattershot until Warren, the final speaker of the day. The senator from Massachusetts connected all the dots to point to the both all-encompassing and systemic nature of the issues facing American workers. “There’s a lot that’s broken in America,” she said. adding that corporations can currently roll over communities, employees and customers, without anyone doing much about it. How to change it? “We need more power in the hands of employees,” she proclaimed. She then went on to tout her “structural" solutions, things that include her wealth tax that would pay for a significant student loan forgiveness and universal child care (among other things) as well as a plan to allow workers to vote on who should hold 40 percent of the seats on their company’s board of directors, something that she believes would make companies more cognizant of their employees’ pay and working conditions.

The crowd gave Warren the most passionate response, with more than one standing ovation and cheers from almost the beginning of her half-hour appearance. She received another enthusiastic reception a few hours later, when she took her pitch to a rally of about 500 people gathered in the cafeteria of Las Vegas’s Bonanza High School. In the crowd was Oklahoma native Linda Overbey, 61. She used to live in Los Angeles doing scenic design work for the film and television industry, but in the 1990s she discovered that the construction industry in Nevada offered more steady work. “I am a union painter,” she tells me proudly when I ask her what she does for a living.

Overbey says she likes Warren because “I think she does more than just describe the problem. I think she has solutions.” She also likes Biden, who historically enjoys strong union support and affection. When Biden received an endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters on Monday, President Trump immediately stepped forward with insults, referring to the “Dues Sucking” leadership who “rip-off their membership." But academic research shows that unions work to decrease income inequality. Not only do they ensure that their own workers are paid better than they would be if forced to negotiate their compensation on an individual basis, but they also often get their members better working conditions, too.

Our second Gilded Age has been marked — almost certainly not by coincidence — by a marked falloff in union membership, from 1 in 5 workers in the early 1980s, to about 1 in 10 today. According to a new Post-ABC News poll, a majority of voters say they believe our nation’s economic and political systems operate to help those in power, not the overall population. There’s little question that stronger unions could make a difference for many people, a point the candidates made over and over again on Saturday. Overbey, for one, doesn’t need to be convinced. She tells me she’s a huge supporter of unions, in part because they ensure that workers receive a decent enough pay that women do not need to stay in abusive or unhappy relationships because they can’t afford to leave. “They don’t feel trapped," she says. Unions, in other words, work to ensure that workers receive decent wages so that they have freedom in other parts of their lives. Imagine that.

Read more:

David Byler: Why hasn’t Elizabeth Warren achieved liftoff?

Christine Emba: Elizabeth Warren vs. the politics of resentment

Jennifer Rubin: Why not Warren?

Elizabeth Warren: Corporate executives must face jail time for overseeing massive scams

Greg Sargent: An election all about our Gilded Age levels of inequality