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Labor Leader Works Spokane Crowd

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, pilloried on television commercials around the country as “a big labor boss,” is in fact not very large.

But that’s not the big-ness worrying the Republican Party this election year.

It’s the size of the international union’s political war chest - about $35 million - that has the GOP enraged. And the power of Sweeney’s message delivered Tuesday at a Spokane labor rally.

“Workers are wondering, ‘Who the hell is getting my share?”’ Sweeney said as he denounced large corporations that lay off workers, move jobs overseas and pay big bonuses to executives.

“Are you getting your share?” he asked some 6,000 cheering union members, spouses and children.

When they shouted back “NO!” Sweeney replied: “You’re damn right, and it’s time we fought back.”

As Republicans try to counter the union’s ad blitz, they are using a grainy, black-and-white picture of Sweeney’s face while the ad intones against the “big labor bosses (who) are spending big money spreading big lies to buy control of Congress.”

In an interview before his speech, Sweeney - a 61-year-old New Yorker of average height and slightly larger than average girth - seemed to relish the role of target. He shrugged off the commercials that call him a liar.

“The Republicans are just so upset we’re having success getting our message out,” he said. “Everything we’re doing is legal, and everything we’re saying is true.”

The truth of the ads, which accuse Rep. George Nethercutt and other freshmen congressmen of “cutting Medicare,” is the subject of fierce debate.

Nethercutt and other Republicans say they actually increased Medicare, but at a slower rate than the current program projects, to keep the system from going bankrupt. To bring costs down, they also wanted to increase some co-payments, reduce some payments to hospitals and encourage more seniors to sign up for managed care plans.

Judy Olson, Nethercutt’s Democratic challenger, denounces the proposal at every opportunity as a cut. Tuesday, she was seconded by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who voted against the plan.

Murray added, however, that even President Clinton’s proposed fix for Medicare would have amounted to a cut, although no one was sure what would be reduced because that proposal was short on details. But the savings were to be half the GOP proposal, so it would be “cutting to a reasonable amount,” she said.

Neither the GOP proposal nor the Clinton plan became law, so any discussion of the impacts is debatable.

What’s not debatable is the fact that the union commercials - and the counterattacks by Republicans and their allies - have shaped much of this congressional campaign.

In Spokane alone, the AFL-CIO has spent about $435,000 on television commercials criticizing Nethercutt and Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, another Republican freshman.

To the suggestion that that’s a lot of money to be spending on a pair of congressional campaigns in the Inland Northwest, Sweeney replied: “Media is very expensive. Besides, they’re outspending us.”

That’s not true, at least not yet, in the Spokane area. But at $280,000 and counting, Nethercutt is closing the gap.

The union spending is less than $20 per AFL-CIO member in Spokane, Sweeney and local labor leaders said.

In defiance of the GOP counterattack, Sweeney wore lapel buttons proclaiming “Hi! I’m a Big Labor Boss.” They were leftovers from the 1984 Washington gubernatorial race, when Republicans tried to paint Booth Gardner as a tool of big labor. The charge never stuck on the Weyerhauser heir, but it mobilized the union rank-and-file and was one of the missteps that cost Republican John Spellman his re-election.

Sweeney, local labor leaders and the candidates on the rally platform Tuesday delivered the same message to the carpenters, steelworkers, Teamsters and teachers who filled the exhibition hall of the Interstate Fairgrounds: Get out and vote.

It was one of the biggest crowds since the biannual rallies began in 1978, and a must-show appearance for Democrats from gubernatorial hopeful Gary Locke on down.

Win or lose in November, Sweeney made it clear that the AFL-CIO intends to remain a force in national politics.

“We’re seeing a stronger, more effective voice, not just for this election. This will be ongoing,” he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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