Coia, Laborers Celebrate State Of
He blasts his critics and looks toward
renomination at the union's convention.
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
Related story:This week's Laborers
convention presents challenges for Coia
LAS VEGAS -- Amid marching bands,
laser lights and watchful federal agents, Laborers Union General
President Arthur A. Coia blasted his critics yesterday as "anti-worker,
anti-union enemies" whose "vicious lies" are "the
price we must pay to protect our members and their families."
More quietly, Coia's convention team
moved to win big pay hikes for him and other officials, while
raising dues on their 750,000 members, partly to pay for the in-house
anti-corruption unit he formed to avert a government takeover
of the Laborers last year.
Coia, who will be renominated against
weak opposition today for a five-year term, will have his annual base salary increased
from $201,624 to $250,000, if the convention agrees and if he
goes on to win reelection later this fall.
Neither proposition seemed much in
doubt among the 2,200 delegates gathered for the union's 21st convention in a hall
decked out with sunburst colors suggesting the neons of the famous
strip of casinos outside.
In preparation for Coia's entrance,
the crimson-clad Star of Nevada marching band played the anthems, giant video screens
flashed a sunny version of the union's recent struggles and a
laser show played over the rafters.
Then the theme from Rocky rose and
Coia strode through the crowd, kissing a baby and distributing
hugs and high-fives among his supporters. From the New England
contingent came the chant "Coia! Coia! Coia!"
A hoarse-sounding Coia then reported
optimistically on "the state of the union," particularly its advances in public
relations, training and organizing. The speech was emotional but
short on specifics. His attack on critics and his reference to
"troubling revelations" and "disturbing truths,"
for example, were oblique references to the Laborers history of
mob domination that came to a head on Coia's watch.
Under threat of a government takeover,
Coia struck an agreement with the Justice Department that permitted
him to keep his job and begin an in-house cleanup. The government can take over the union
if it deems the anti-corruption effort unsuccessful -- until February
1998, when its power under the agreement expires.
The government had to threaten such
a takeover last year to secure the new election rules in force
at this convention -- hence the presence of a team from the Justice
Department that is monitoring the first secret ballot in Laborers
The only sour note for Coia was a
ruling late in the day by the union election officer that the
union itself had violated the reformed election procedures by
permitting AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney to campaign for Coia
before the convention.
The only peep of dissent on the convention
floor came from Jeff Perry, treasurer of a Mail Handlers local
in New York, who stood on a point of order to request that the
delegates be issued printed copies of the convention rules before
their adoption was voted upon.
"Since I see how money is being
spent so lavishly here, I think we can afford that," said
Perry. Otherwise, he said, a convention supposed to be bringing
unprecedented power to the rank-and-file would actually be "a
"Well, brother, your point is
well-taken," answered the presiding Coia. Then he called
for "ayes' from delegates "who don't think that this
is a problem" and "nays" from those who disagreed.
The division appeared difficult to
call. "The ayes have it," Coia declared and the rules
were immediately adopted without discussion -- or the printed
copies sought by Perry.
In a Mail Handlers caucus later, Perry
denounced the raises for officers, as well as a per capita dues
increase -- items that he said may also be adopted this week with
no more discussion than the rules.
Perry calculated the hundreds of thousands
of dollars that the dues hike would raise from his division and
said, "We need that money for Mail Handlers organizing, not
for mobbed-up leaders of LIUNA (the Laborers International Union
of North America)."
Other officials described the dues
hike as necessary and proper.
To the scattered and outnumbered dissidents,
Coia's theatrical debut yesterday reflected an aura of conspicuous
consumption at a convention representing some of organized labor's
humblest callings: asbestos-removal, food-processing, construction
Besides their per diem checks, arriving
delegates were issued oak framed wall clocks and gold-braceleted
women's watches bearing the LIUNA logo, an array of shirts and
tote bags, and invitations to an "off-Broadway show"
today, to be followed by a party at the "oasis" on the
grounds of the Flamingo hotel and casino.
Part of each delegate's convention
kit is a golf shirt bearing the "Clinton-Gore-96" logo
on the breast. Coia also has sets of golf clubs -- engraved as
convention commemoratives -- to give away to
visiting speakers, who included Sweeney.
Coia joked with Sweeney about the
troublesome publicity he has had since he and President Clinton
swapped golf clubs at around the time that the Justice Department
delivered a draft racketeering suit charging that he was running
the union for the benefit of organized crime.
That drew attention to the backdrop
to this week's drama: the union's efforts to reelect Mr. Clinton,
with whom Coia has worked hard to ally himself -- through contributions
and support on free trade and other issues before Congress --
since he become president of the union in February 1993.
As often as Coia and his fellow Laborers
officers spoke out for Mr. Clinton and congressional Democrats
yesterday, there seemed to be an endorsement of his work from
Transportation Secretary Federico
Pena appeared, by satellite, from a studio overlooking the Washington
Monument. He chatted with Coia, calling him, "Arthur,"
and thanking him for the Laborers' endorsement of Mr. Clinton.
House Minority Leader Richard B. Gephardt
also visited by satellite and got the day's biggest ovation when
he fantasized aloud about winning back Democratic control on Election
Day and about the day when Congress convenes next January "and
I'll take that gavel from [Republican Speaker] Newt Gingrich."
Pena, Gephardt and Sweeney all praised
Coia for his reform efforts. And, using even harsher language
than Coia had, Gephardt and Sweeney portrayed the criticism of
the union as the handiwork of Republicans who fear organized labor's
spending against them and oppose "working Americans."
Coia's flashy convention kickoff pointed
up a gap between the political haves and have-nots in his union
that could not have been more striking.
Arriving at the Las Vegas Hilton,
Coia challenger Bernard "Barney" Scanlon of New York
found the hotel had no room for him.
"I'll find one," Scanlon
said with a shrug as he manned the gate to the convention hall,
handing out yellow leaflets with a lone volunteer supporter.
What he may not find at this convention,
Scanlon volunteered, is the 5-percent delegate support he needs
to get on the fall ballot against Coia.
Scanlon did get an unexpected boost,
however, when the union officer in charge of the election, Stephen
B. Goldberg, ruled that the union violated its new election reform
regulations by permitting Sweeney to campaign on behalf of Coia
before the convention.
Goldberg ordered the union to give
Scanlon and another candidate, Bruno Caruso, five minutes each
on the convention dais today "to engage in such campaigning
as they wish."
Copyright © 1997 The Providence