Labor Lifts Its Voice At Capitol -- Angry Unions Vow Not To Repeat 1994 Election Mistakes

OLYMPIA - The massive labor rally that engulfed the Capitol yesterday showed that labor leaders have learned a lesson from their lackadaisical 1994 campaign effort.

Disenchanted with Democrats who hadn't done enough in two years in control of the Legislature, labor unions were half-hearted at best in carrying out their traditional role as the Democratic Party's most enthusiastic supporters and most generous financiers.

But the resulting election brought "all these damn Republicans," said Salem Darrow, a carpenter from Seattle who attended yesterday's Rally for Working Families.

Those Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 12 years. And as Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, told the crowd of 7,500, "Things are not getting better, brothers and sisters, they're getting worse."

The rally was called to draw attention to the Republican proposals labor leaders say would harm union members. But there were also signs that labor will work harder this year to elect friends.

"After we kill all this anti-working legislation, we are going to start doing something positive," said Bender, who added that the Labor Council would soon begin its 1996 campaign work. "I'm tired of playing defense," he told the crowd.

As the rally formed into a march around the Capitol grounds, Bender said in an interview that after unions worked hard for Democrats in 1992, they were disappointed in the results. When the 1994 elections came around, "Our people sat it out."

The crowd that stood for hours in the cold rain was proof that labor would not repeat its mistakes, said Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, a union organizer.

Such campaign strategies may not have been on the mind of all those at what was the largest Capitol rally in years. For many it was an opportunity to be seen, be heard and vent.

They came to show they were angry - fed up with "unlivable" wages and watching the gap grow between the working and ruling classes. They shouted, "I'm not paid what I'm worth" and railed against attacks on worker safety.

They chanted "power to the workers" and sang, "There ain't enough politicians in the world to stop the workers' power."

They heard from friendly politicians, including Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Mike Lowry. "There is something really wrong when the average CEO makes 140 times the average worker," Lowry told the crowd. "Now, that's not fair."

There was little patience for politicians, though - including the lawmakers who are likely to stop much of the GOP-sponsored legislation the unions oppose.

About 200 crowded into a Senate Labor, Commerce and Trade Committee meeting in the afternoon, cheering when one of their "brothers and sisters" made a point, and sometimes jeering at senators.

They booed Sen. Lorraine Wojahn, D-Tacoma, when she asked one Mexican migrant farmworker, who spoke through an interpreter because she said it made her feel more comfortable, to speak in English.

"It doesn't bode well to speak Spanish because it's hard for us to understand," Wojahn said.

An audience member yelled back: "Why don't you go to college and learn how to speak Spanish?"

The crowd ignored the repeated attempts to quiet them by Committee Chairman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, perhaps their closest ally in the Legislature.

"Folks, this is a public hearing," Pelz said. "We've already had a rally today."

Pelz, one of the Democrats who felt a chill from labor two years ago, said he is prepared to use his committee to stop House Republican bills labor doesn't like. He said only three of the committee's 13 bills opposed by the Labor Council have a chance of passing. The bills include proposals to loosen teen work rules, relax safety standards for farm workers, and to not require employers to pay for workers' uniforms.

Even with just a one-vote majority in the Senate, Pelz said Democrats can protect the unions. But he said labor leaders should not count on that in the future.

"This year, it's not too bad," Pelz said. "But we could lose that next year."