This Week's Laborers Convention Presents
Challenges For Coia
Coia and his allies are expected to
prevail in the first secret convention ballot in the union's history.
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
Related story:Time to rebuild Teamsters,
WASHINGTON -- Arthur A. Coia, the
target of federal and congressional investigations for alleged
Mafia ties, is in Las Vegas this week for his triumphant nomination to a second term as general
president of the Laborers International Union of North America.
The Rhode Islander, who testified
under oath last year to how he once got a Chicago mob capo's personal
blessing for the union's No. 2 job, is running as a reformer who
averted a federal takeover of the Laborers -- and his own ouster
-- by starting an internal cleanup.
"And we are winning! This union
is winning the battle against corruption and organized crime,"
Coia wrote in his latest monthly message to the Laborers, founded
in 1903 as the hod carriers union and dominated for most of its
history -- from local hiring halls to headquarters in Washington
-- by Mafia chieftains who handpicked union officers.
Coia, 53, appears certain to dominate
the field of three candidates competing for 2,200 delegate votes
in the first secret convention ballot in the annals of the Laborers.
Nominees will face the rank-and-file this fall in another Laborers
first: a secret, democratic ballot, with one vote for each of
the union's 750,000 members.
But Coia and his allies -- favored
to win most, if not all, of the 11 vice presidential elections
-- may find a couple of clouds on the desert horizon this week.
For one thing, Coia faces opposition,
including an alleged Chicago mob figure and an aging New York
construction worker who hopes to whip up the union's historically
feeble dissident movement.
For another, there is the presence
of a small federal prosecution team, on hand to observe the elections.
After this week, the prosecutors will scrutinize an internal union
investigation of an allegation of illegal election campaign finances
that could reach into Coia's office.
The rag-tag band of Laborers dissidents
is led by Bernard "Barney" Scanlon, a general building
laborer from Long Island's notorious Local 66 who has never before
stood for union office.
"I'm going out there like a lamb,
knowing I'm going to (lose)," said Scanlon, 70. He has bucked
corrupt local leadership, and sometimes been blackballed for his
efforts, since the New York mob moved in more than two decades
He declared for general president
only last month, when another longtime dissident failed to make
Scanlon had his own problems winning
delegate status, a prerequisite for his candidacy for general
president. "The intimidation factor is so great that I couldn't
get anyone to nominate me, for fear of punitive action. I had
to nominate myself," said Scanlan.
But 225 of Scanlon's co-workers voted
for him in the secret ballot of Local 66 membership, giving him
the right to challenge Coia in Las Vegas.
"That's a good example of what
people do when they get an opportunity to cast a secret ballot.
You get different results than when you have to stand up in public,"
said Craig Oswald, an assistant U.S. attorney from Chicago who
worked on the draft racketeering suit against Coia and the union that
triggered the internal reform effort now underway.
"That's probably why the union
hierarchy was so reluctant to embrace this election reform"
during negotiations with the government last year, Oswald said.
Scanlon's Local 66 figures in that
212-page draft case against Laborers leadership. It describes
how top officers of the local pleaded guilty to bribery and drew
prison terms in 1989. The document alleges that the international
union's leadership imposed a trusteeship on Local 66, to avoid
a government racketeering suit. But the new local leadership still
answered to New York's Luchese family of La Cosa Nostra, according
to the draft.
During this period, Coia was Laborers
general secretary-treasurer, successor to his late father, Arthur E. Coia. He became
general president in February 1993.
A different sort of challenger to
Coia is Bruno Caruso, who is president of Chicago Local 1001 and
was named in the draft racketeering suit as the son of a Chicago
Mafia family member.
The Justice Department presented Coia
with that draft racketeering suit, which accused him of running
the Laborers for the benefit of organized crime, late in 1994.
Coia averted a federal takeover of
the union and kept his job by offering a union-run cleanup --
with the government retaining the power to take over and throw
him out if it became dissatisfied with the results.
Never before in the federal wars against
labor corruption had a union chief told the government: "It
ain't true and I can prove it ain't true," said Coffey, who
had once portrayed Coia as a "mob puppet."
Coia's actions in setting up the in-house
anti-corruption team since he signed his agreement with the government
in February, 1995 "aren't the actions of a puppet,"said
Coffey. "I think Mr. Coia has elected to turn . . . on La
Cosa Nostra because he has no choice."
Later last year, however, the lawyers
for Coia and the union resisted the government's demand for new
rules governing this election until the Justice Department played
its only powerful card: the takeover threat. Even then, Coia's
team won rules requiring only the top two officers to be elected on
the fully democratic principle of one-member, one-vote.
The dissidents argue that the old-style
convention-delegate election of the 11 union vice presidents this
week protects entrenched local and regional power.
Still, this week's glitzy proceeding
-- which AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and possibly Labor
Secretary Robert Reich are to address -- will be a far cry from
the nightmare scene that some dissidents remember from conventions
Laborer Chris White of Alaska has
told of how he was jostled and verbally abused during the booze-drenched
Florida convention of 1981; and how, with Coia's father presiding,
fellow-dissident Dennis Ryan of Iowa was beaten during his speech
in support of a futile maverick candidacy for general president.
White lost his local election for
delegate last summer, which killed his bid to challenge Coia,
but he plans to be in Las Vegas to help Scanlon collect the 5
percent of delegate votes necessary to put him on the fall ballot.
Another potential cloud over Coia's
nomination is the pending complaint about election campaign finances,
now under the jurisdiction of the internal cleanup team.
According to Oswald, "We've got
some credible evidence of a campaign fund, to which people at
headquarters allege that they were forced to contribute as a condition
of their employment, that may involve misuse of union funds and
that may involve extortion," said Oswald. There is also "credible
evidence" that may tie "Mr. Coia and others in the upper
echelons of the union" to the campaign fund irregularities,
Oswald said. He stressed, however, that Coia has denied any involvement
and that the internal union procedings in the case won't be concluded
for some weeks.
Coia's travails leading up to the
convention have not kept him from reaching for the grandest possible
imprimatur of his leadership. Here is one of the listings on advance
copies of Tuesday's program at the Las Vegas Hilton Convention
Hall, following floor nominations of candidates for general
"12:15 PM Speaker-President William
The Clinton-Gore campaign in Washington
says there is no such date on Mr. Clinton's traveling schedule.
Copyright © 1997 The Providence