Published by the Association for Union
by Herman Benson
Serious charges were brought against Arthur
A. Coia, international president of the Laborers Union by Inspector
General Douglas Gow and vigorously prosecuted by Attorney Robert
Luskin. After extensive argument and testimony by a raft of witnesses,
Hearing Officer Peter Vaira exonerated Coia, except on a single
charge; and on that charge, Coia was hit with a substantial fine,
$100,000, but permitted to remain in office. The U.S. Justice
Department says it is disappointed with the finding, and it urges
Luskin to challenge the verdict in an appeal to the union's Appellate
To me, most of the charges were puzzling,
but the exoneration was equally puzzling. There seems to be some
kind of strange mismatch here because the charges rest on one
plane while the exoneration exists on another, almost as though
Coia was found innocent of accusations that were not brought against
Essentially, Luskin charged that in the past
Coia was guilty of tolerating organized crime in the union by
not acting vigorously against it. A close reading of Vaira's decision,
however, indicates that the spirit, or core, of his finding was
that Coia had not actively served organized crime and was not
its tool, an accusation that was never quite brought against Coia
by Luskin, whose main case was based mostly, but not exclusively,
not on what Coia did do, but on what he failed to do. (The one
charge on which Coia was found guilty and fined was for an act
The charges and trial procedure arose out
of the 1995 consent agreement between the government and the union
under Coia's leadership: In return for the Justice Department's
decision not to file a RICO corruption suit against the union,
which would have asked a federal judge to remove the whole LIUNA
officialdom, the union agreed to a kind of self-policing arrangement
to rid itself of organized crime and corruption.
By agreement with the government, Gow, Luskin,
Vaira, and Eggleston were appointed to their posts of inspector
general, special attorney, hearing officer, and appellate officer.
That agreement has been extended from time
to time, with the government reserving the right, whenever it
is not satisfied with the clean-up progress, to implement the
consent agreement and take over direct control of the union. From
the union side, the agreement was supported by Coia, the same
now caught in the net he helped create.
The peculiar aspect of the charges is that
they are based on actions (mostly upon inactions) of Coia while
he was secretary treasurer and the general president of the Laborers,
but in the period before the consent agreement and before he had
agreed to the current cleanup process.
As a union leader, even in the pre-agreement
period, Luskin charged, Coia had the legal and moral obligation
to act vigorously against racketeering in the union. Instead,
go the charges, he got his job as secretary treasurer with the
blessing of the mob; then he tolerated it and maintained suspiciously
close personal relations with some organized crime figures.
But he was not charged with being part of
the mob, or of being its tool, or even of actively serving its
[Except in one instance where he appointed
Frank Serpico, whom he knew was part of the Chicago mob, as chairman
of a hearing panel with an annual salary of $100,000. Coia's explanation
is, if not a justification, mostly credible, even though the details
Serpico had been the choice of the Chicago
mob to become LIUNA president upon the death of President Angelo
Fosco in 1989. But Coia outmaneuvered him and got himself chosen.
Then to mollify and neutralize Serpico and
reduce his authority, Coia argues, he appointed him to a position
where he had no significant union or patronage powers.
The explanation is credible because it squares
with a familiar sordid practice in the labor movement of buying
off suspect officials.
To get rid of Edward Hanley from the Hotel
Union, the government permitted him to retire with a swollen bag
of pensions and severance payments. The Service Employees did
the same for Gus Bevona in Local 32B/J; AFSCME, for Stanley Hill
in DC 37.]
The charge on which Coia was found guilty
and fined $100,000 is in a class by itself.
An auto leasing company doing a lucrative
business with the union performed complex financial favors for
Coia which enabled him to buy a $450,000 luxury antique car and
to avoid paying about $80,000 in assorted taxes on the transaction.
Should the penalty have been more severe?
Should he have been removed from office? Perhaps. The question
should be answered in the context of the larger issues in the
But returning to the main issue: Did Coia,
tolerate organized crime in the union? Did he fail to act against
it? Was he guilty in that earlier period of "appeasement
and acquiescence" to the mob?
After reading Luskin's charge, and Coia's
defense, and Vaira's not-guilty verdict, and post-hearing comments
by Luskin, it seems that Luskin has demonstrated the validity
of that charge by overwhelming evidence.
This is not surprising. The construction
industry is a cesspool of corruption. It is almost impossible
to survive in that world, at any level, without being touched
by the corrupt system: by closing ones eyes or remaining silent
before the obvious, or by accepting its benefits, or by actively
participating in it, or by crushing those who resist it. For anyone
to rise to a position as high as Coia's without consciously tolerating
that system and working within it, would be impossible.
"If Coia should be removed for
appeasing the mob in the days before the consent agreement then
the whole leadership of the union, from top to bottom, obviously
was guilty of the same offense."
Yes, Luskin's charge was surely justified.
Yet, there is something odd here.
The charges relate to the pre-agreement period.
In 1995, when the agreement was signed, all the facts were known
to the government and served as the basis for its threatened RICO
suit. (With the possible exception of the auto deal.)
Yet, Coia was permitted to serve once he
agreed to the self-policing program. In fact, Luskin, even while
presenting his charges, refers to "the credit he [Coia] richly
deserves for fostering the reform process." In its release
expressing disappointment with Vaira's finding, the government
notes a certain satisfaction with the reform process.
The anomaly is this: If sanctions should
be taken against Coia now, even up to his removal, for appeasing
the mob in the days before the consent agreement, then the whole
leadership of the union, from top to bottom obviously was guilty
of that same offense.
None of those in power acted to fight corruption
and racketeering. Then the whole leadership is suspect. But since
the government knew all that in 1995, the whole basis for the
consent agreement, in retrospect, is called into question.
If Coia should be removed for past inaction,
then so should the rest of the leadership. If Coia goes, but the
rest of the officialdom remains, the one official that embraced
reform, for whatever motive, is not likely to be replaced by a
more desirable substitute.
It seems to me that if the charges justify
his removal, they apply to all the others, so that the only logical
response would be, not simply to remove Coia, but to enforce the
terms of the consent agreement and take direct control of the
union and the reform process.
Vaira, as judge and jury, found Coia not
guilty, but not guilty of what?
Luskin argued that Coia, as a high official
of the union, had to be held to a strict legal and ethical standard.
That he was obligated to take active measures against the mob
and should have done so. Vaira evaded that question.
Instead he imposed upon Luskin the burden
of proving what he had not really set out to demonstrate. Vaira
asked whether Coia had actively associated with organized crime
figures and whether he had actively served the interests of the
Luskin argued that Coia had failed to act
against the racketeers. Vaira demanded proof that Coia had acted
deliberately for the mob. And since Luskin failed to produce such
proof by a preponderance of the evidence, Coia was off the hook.
The problem with the charges is that they
deal four years belatedly with the derelictions of an even more
distant past. The problem with the Vaira verdict is that it gives
Coia a clean bill of health for those very failings.
In its press release, the government says
rightly that there has been encouraging progress in four years
of the consent agreement. The days are gone when an insurgent
could be publicly beaten on the convention floor. There is not
an absence of fear but substantially less fear.
Members feel freer to run for office. In
the last election of national officers, supervised by outside
monitors, several incumbents were opposed by insurgents. In a
trustworthy referendum members voted to require the direct election
of all national officers. But there is a long, long way to go
before LIUNA can be considered a safely democratic and decent
In the early days of the consent agreement,
at least a hundred laborers complained of favoritism and intimidation
in the hiring halls.
The model hiring hall rules propounded by
the union are excellent on paper but mean nothing in practice.
By this time there have surely been hundreds
of hiring hall complaints. Nothing here has changed.
The monitors have never even reported on
the outcome of those complaints.
The union's general executive board rejected
proposals by the monitors for outside supervision of local elections.
Members complain that Vaira fails to act
vigorously to protect their rights in their locals.
The union maintains a district council system
which, as in Connecticut, undercuts the right of members of vote
on dues increases and contract ratification.
Neither the case against Coia nor the decision
exonerating him face up to these issues, so important in the life
of any union.
Whether Coia goes or stays, these issues
remain and with them the need to strengthen enforcement of the
In his post-hearing brief, Luskin wrote,
"Loud proclamations of bold initiatives, unaccompanied by
serious measures, produce only deep cynicism. Thus, when leaders
fail to deliver on their promises, the problems they claim to
be addressing become even more intractable."
Exactly! But the problem lies not in Coia's past but in the present and future of the reform process.
What's the real story in Laborers' hiring halls?
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The Association for Union Democracy is a national pro-union non-profit that promotes the principles and practices of internal union democracy in the North American labor movement.