By Tim Reid
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Six Democratic presidential hopefuls declared their support for American workers and a $15 federal minimum wage on Saturday as they seek the backing of labor unions in their battle to become the candidate to take on Republican President Donald Trump next year.
The candidates spoke to an audience of union workers in Las Vegas, decrying low wages and corporate greed, as they woo organized labor, an important voting bloc in the Democratic Party's presidential nominating battle.
The courtship is also important for America's unions. They have seen their political influence and membership decline over the past generation. Organized labor hopes that a huge field of 2020 Democratic candidates, now standing at 20, will enable them to make issues such as a federal minimum wage and the right to strike central issues in the campaign.
Democrats are also desperate to win back the millions of working class voters who turned their back on the party in 2016 and voted for Trump, particularly in the critical Midwestern states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that were key to the Republican's White House victory.
The six candidates at the National Forum on Wages and Working People all backed a $15 federal minimum wage. That followed a move in January by Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic frontrunner not at the event, to re-introduce a bill gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2024.
The legislation is co-sponsored by the five other senators competing against Sanders, including Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who all spoke at the Las Vegas event.
Warren, who has railed against Wall Street greed and wants to raise taxes on America's 75,000 wealthiest families to pay for programs including free universal child care and student debt relief, received the loudest ovation as she took the stage.
"Let's make the zillionaires pay a fair share," she declared to cheers.
Harris said a $15 minimum wage was merely a starting point. "A minimum wage - that's a minimum standard of living," Harris said. In response to a question about working conditions from a McDonald's worker, Harris said she would press the burger giant's CEO to pay better wages. Klobuchar pitched her plan to make companies pay into retirement accounts for workers.
Others at the forum backing a $15 minimum wage were former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.
The event was organized by the Service Employees International Union, one of the country's biggest with two million members, and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, part of a Washington-based liberal think tank.
The candidates decried efforts by some Republicans in recent years to limit the power of unions. The Democrats pledged to strengthen the rights of workers. They said they would take on companies that try and limit the ability of workers to collectively organize.
O'Rourke said there was a direct link between the decline in union participation and the rise in income inequality.
"Unions are absolutely essential to the future of this country if we are to have a future in this country," O'Rourke said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who jumped into the race on Thursday, was not at the event. But he has longstanding union ties and will also be courting union members heavily. His first campaign event on Monday will be at a Teamsters union hall in Pittsburgh.
(Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Andrea Ricci)