Las Vegas Review-Journal

Pardoning corruption

Labor's Las Vegas Foray Diverts Attention From Its Problems

By Ken Boehm

Special to the Review-Journal

Sunday, March 22, 1998

Las Vegas was the center of organized labor's universe last week. In one orbit, there was President Clinton and other "pro-labor" politicians coming to town to grovel for campaign money and, in return, making promises on "working family" issues and upcoming National Labor Relations Board appointments. In a similar orbit was Vice President Al Gore and Rep. Dick Gephardt, fighting the next in a series of battles for "big labor's" support on the road to 2000. And then there was John Sweeney's AFL-CIO, which is desperately trying to avoid spinning out of control -- burning up in the stratosphere, if you will -- as a result of the colossal Teamsters money-laundering scandal.

The gravitational event was the winter AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting. And it is no surprise that while in Las Vegas the Sweeney AFL-CIO talked about everything and anything to distract public and non-union member attention away from the corruption that has put Sweeney's governing coalition in a potentially unrecoverable position.

It's far easier to discuss minimum wage increases and the Building Trades Organizing Project's war on Las Vegas construction contractors than it is to address the fall of Ron Carey and the possible indictment of the AFL-CIO's second-in-command, Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka. Carey already been disqualified from the next Teamsters election and is on the verge of expulsion by his own Internal Review Board. It looks little better for Trumka, who invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid questions about possible criminal acts in the Teamsters scandal.

Along with Carey and Trumka, Sweeney has to worry about losing two other key supporters: influential AFSCME President Gerald McEntee and Sweeney's successor as SEIU President, Andrew Stern. According to U.S. District Court documents, Carey, Trumka, McEntee, Stern and other prominent movers-and-shakers in the labor movement were a part of the complex schemes which improperly raised at least $538,100 for Carey's 1996 re-election effort.

Why would the most powerful labor leaders in America risk their careers and their freedom on Carey's re-election? They realized that without a staunch ideologue running the member-rich Teamsters, the Sweeney-Trumka grip on the AFL-CIO would be highly susceptible to defeat by a more mainstream coalition at the federation's 1997 national convention.

In addition to the Teamsters mess, there is the Laborers' International Union of North America and its president, Arthur Coia. Recent charges by LIUNA's chief investigator have reaffirmed the U.S. Justice Department's long-standing concerns that Coia is beholden to organized crime. Coia could be ejected from LIUNA if an internal hearing officer finds him guilty of associating with organized crime. And, the Justice Department recently extended its official criminal oversight of LIUNA.

If Sweeney loses Trumka, McEntee, Stern or Coia on top of losing Carey, he faces a dissatisfaction and lack-of-support problem similar to the one Lane Kirkland failed to survive in 1995. Thus, Las Vegas provided a much-desired stage for Sweeney to spin and divert attention both for internal coalition support and public perception.

However, Clinton, and especially Gore and Gephardt, would not have allowed Sweeney to get away with the diversion if they really cared about rank-and-file union members. The "big three" should take on corruption and serious ethical problems in the Sweeney AFL-CIO. They should criticize the illegal activity connected to the last Teamsters election, and speak out strongly against all union corruption.

If Clinton, Gore and Gephardt remain silent or just gloss over the obvious corruption in the Sweeney AFL-CIO, they are essentially condoning criminal behavior. They are saying crime does pay -- at least when you're a union boss.

That's unacceptable and a disgrace. These politicians came to this meeting begging for campaign contributions and at the same time pardoning the widespread corruption plaguing labor. Clinton, Gore and Gephardt should stand up to the Sweeney AFL-CIO. They should fight for the interests of union members who have been abused by corrupt union bosses.

Ken Boehm is chairman of the National Legaland Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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