Tuesday October 24, 1995
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN and DEAN STARKMAN Journal-Bulletin
Arthur A. Coia, general president of the
Laborers' International Union of North America, may hold the swing
votes in this week's election of the next president of the AFL-CIO,
making him a pivotal figure at a key juncture in the federation's
Coia, attending the AFL-CIO's annual convention
here, disclosed yesterday that he is considering switching his
750,000-member union's longtime support of the challenger, John
J. Sweeney, to the incumbent, Thomas R. Donahue.
The delegates are scheduled to vote tomorrow,
in the first contested election in the modern annals of the 13-million-member
"Right now you got one guy in a position
to determine the whole presidency of the AFL-CIO," Coia,
referring to himself, said in an interview. He said the role of
"kingmaker" is "not bad for a small-time, hometown
guy from Providence, Rhode Island."
Early yesterday, Coia joined several other
national union leaders in issuing a reaffirmation of support for
Sweeney. But later, he said, Donahue requested his allegiance
- and offered to make him the third-ranking officer in the national
Coia said he's thinking about it.
"I don't know if Arthur wants to do
it," said one union officer in the Donahue camp who is close
to the back-room horse-trading. And Coia won't switch, this official
predicted, unless he's confident of bringing along enough other
unions to seal Donahue's victory.
Tad Devine, a political consultant to the
Donahue camp, asserted that some key support for Sweeney is "soft,"
but he stopped short of predicting a decisive shift to Donahue.
If Donahue scores an upset, Devine said, "Arthur will be
right in the middle of it."
Coia's sudden emergence as a central figure
in the AFL-CIO's power struggle comes just eight months after
he narrowly averted a government takeover of his Laborers union.
Last November, the Justice Department gave
Coia a document - the draft of a contemplated civil suit - alleging
that the Laborers union was dominated by organized crime and that
it was undemocratic and systemically corrupt.
The document also alleged that Coia himself
had associated with mobsters and had tried to divert union training
funds in upstate New York to organized crime figures in Buffalo.
The allegations emerged during civil litigation
between Coia and two rival Laborers leaders who have since been
eased out of office. The document had expressed the government's
intent to oust Coia, as well.
But in February the Justice Department, without
explanation, changed course and signed an unprecedented agreement
calling for Coia to remain in power and preside over his own program
to reform the union.
Also in February, Coia was among the leaders
of about a dozen national unions who privately approached then-AFL-CIO
President Lane Kirkland and asked
that he resign the position he had held for
many years. Kirkland refused.
But last summer, under challenge from those
unions, Kirkland resigned, and the AFL-CIO's executive board named
Donahue to serve the remainder of his term.
Since then, Coia has firmly supported Sweeney,
the president of the Service Employees International Union, and
Sweeney has consistently claimed the support of enough union leaders
to win the presidency.
Yesterday morning, Coia signed a letter with
26 other unions in Sweeney's bloc, calling on Donahue and his
camp to "cease calling into question our loyalty" to
the Sweeney ticket.
But later in the morning, Coia said, over
"bagels and orange juice" at the convention hotel, fellow
leaders of the Building Trades Council - an umbrella group of
construction-industry unions within the AFL-CIO - asked him to
accept the position of executive vice president under a Donahue
Right now, that post exists only as a proposal
before the convention. The delegates, after loud debate yesterday,
agreed not to vote on creating it until they decide the presidency.
The building-trades leaders called upon him
to switch candidates, bringing along several smaller building-trades
unions, as a means of fostering "solidarity" in the
council, which is split over this election, Coia said. Coia said
he was "torn between what's right and what's credible."
Supporting, and electing, Donahue might bring needed solidarity
within the AFL-CIO, he said, but at the potential cost of his
A Building Trades Council official, asking
anonymity, commented that the offer to Coia is only one of several
elements in the elaborate behind-the scenes maneuvering in the
Two weeks ago, Coia said, it would have been
an "easy" decision to join a decisive shift by building
But with the makings of such a shift gelling
so late, he said, "you're taking one union (the Laborers)
and making them the ultimate kingmaker."
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