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Coia Re-Elected President Of Laborers'; Direct Election Of Other Officers Approved

 

 

By Michael Bologna and Michelle Amber

Friday, December 20, 1996

 

CHICAGO--Arthur A. Coia won re-election as president of the Laborers' International Union of North America in the first-ever direct election of union officers in the union's 93-year history, the LIUNA election officer announced Dec. 19.

 

Coia beat challenger Bruno Caruso, president of LIUNA Local 1001 in Chicago. Coia, who has been general president of LIUNA since 1993, captured 67 percent of the 68,072 valid votes cast in the United States and Canada.

 

Members of the union also supported a proposal for rank-and-file elections that will permit LIUNA's membership to directly elect district vice presidents and vice presidents at large beginning in 2001. Previously, LIUNA vice presidents were elected by delegates attending the union's general convention. Nearly 50,000, or 78 percent of union members voting, favored direct election of vice presidents, while 14,246 favored retaining the process involving convention delegates.

 

Coia Won By 2 To 1

 

Stephen Goldberg, the election officer appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice, said Coia won re-election with 45,626 votes, compared to the 22,446 collected by Caruso. R.P. Vinall ran unopposed for another term as LIUNA's general secretary and was declared elected at the union's convention in September.

 

Coia won majorities in nine of the 10 LIUNA balloting regions. Caruso's lone victory came in his home base, the Great Lakes region, where he won 56.3 percent of the votes cast. A majority of voters from the Mail-Handlers Division of LIUNA also favored Caruso, giving him 56.2 percent of their votes.

 

The election was carried out under the terms of an agreement reached between the union and the Justice Department last February. Under that agreement, the union agreed to permit direct elections of its general president and general secretary and to hold a referendum relative to the election of vice presidents. The agreement was part of a larger Justice Department reform initiative aimed at sweeping corrupt and anti-democratic practices from the union. That effort is being executed under the terms of a 1995 agreement that permits the union to pursue such reforms on an internal basis.

 

In an interview at his Washington, D.C., headquarters after the vote was announced, Coia told BNA that the results of the election were “significant and positive.” For the last three years, he said, he and the general executive board have tried hard to make the union the most “innovative and forward-thinking” union in the labor movement. The members recognized that through their show of support, he said.

 

More importantly, he said, the election results are a “clear indication of membership support for the system of internal reform, which LIUNA embarked upon in cooperation” with the Justice Department.

 

Less Than 16 Percent Voted

 

Goldberg noted that voter turnout was extremely low in the election, with only 15.5 percent of LIUNA's 446,000 eligible members casting ballots. He noted that participation was slightly higher in the 557 LIUNA locals that chose to conduct mail balloting. Participation was 16.5 percent at locals conducting mail-in balloting, while the rate was 9.4 percent in the 93 locals that conducted in-person balloting.

 

Goldberg attributed the lack of participation to the union's lack of familiarity with direct elections and the lack of real controversy and conflict between the two candidates. In this regard, Goldberg said the LIUNA election was very different from the recent race between Ron Carey and James Hoffa for the top post at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in which more than one-third of all union members voted.

 

Coia attributed the low turnout to a strong show of support for his re-election at the union's convention in September. “So the members thought that maybe I was a clear winner” and that created apathy, he said. Also, he said, LIUNA members are more concerned with who their local representatives are because they are the ones who negotiate their contracts. Plus, he said, the members never voted in a rank-and-file election before.

 

He compared the LIUNA election to the first Teamsters direct election in which he said only 22 percent of that membership voted. He added that IBT members depend on their president to negotiate their national contracts, while LIUNA has thousands of contracts but no national ones.

 

Unlike LIUNA members, Goldberg noted that Teamsters had previously voted in direct elections for union officers. In addition, he said the Teamsters race involved a fairly well-known individual vigorously challenging an aggressive incumbent candidate and spending large sums of money to do so. He noted that Caruso and Coia spent very little money on their campaigns and spent little time stumping for votes around the country.

 

Justice Will Have To Rethink Strategy

 

Goldberg said the Justice Department will no doubt be looking at the low voter turnout and will have to rethink its strategy for pushing LIUNA toward more democratic principles. He said that his appointment and the establishment of fair and objective election procedures created a structure from which democratic principles could flourish. But the union lacks a democratic culture and a spirit of activism--commodities the Justice Department would have a difficult time imposing.

 

“The more difficult step is to create a culture in which the members are interested in taking advantage of the opportunities to use the democratic structures,” Goldberg said.

 

Goldberg noted that unlike the Teamsters election, LIUNA 's election did not generate too many controversies. Of the nearly 70,000 ballots cast, only 145 have been challenged. Goldberg also noted there had been approximately 155 formal complaints filed with the election office since it was formed 10 months ago.

 

Most of the complaints had to do with minor details, such as the voting status of an individual union member. Some substantive issues, however, were brought before the election office, including a complaint suggesting that all union members have access to Justice Department documents describing LIUNA's lengthy relationship with organized crime (227 DLR A-1, 11/25/96).

 

Caruso Statement

 

In a statement released following the election, Caruso applauded the efforts of the election officers, suggesting they showed “patience” and “fairness” throughout the process. Caruso said he was also encouraged by the membership's enthusiasm for democratic principles, which was demonstrated by support for the rank-and-file referendum.

 

“With their strong support of the referendum on membership election of future vice presidents, the members of LIUNA have demonstrated their desire to have a more active role in our union,” Caruso said.

 

Coia also said he was pleased with the outcome of the referendum vote, noting that rank-and-file members have indicated that they want to be more involved in the process. Noting that labor unions were able to increase the number of union members voting in the general presidential elections from 16 percent in 1992 to 23 percent in 1996, he said that now he has to find a way to make that happen in his own union.

 

While he said that the union has communicated with the membership in numerous ways over the last several years, including through a magazine, through faxes sent to the locals two times a week, a video magazine, town hall meetings, and other means, he said there may be a need for still more communication.

 

While Coia said that he believes in the democratic process of a rank-and-file election, he added that the way the Laborers' union is made up--most of the members are not located in large work areas such as a Boeing or General Motors plant--makes it very hard to campaign and reach the membership. He added that his main concern about a rank-and-file election is that it could turn into a popularity contest, which he does not want to see happen.

 

During the interview, Coia received a telephone call from Caruso. Coia congratulated him on the type of campaign he had run, stating that the two opponents campaigned on the issues, not on personalities. He told Caruso that he would like to meet with him after the first of the year to discuss his ideas and those of the people who supported him to “help make the union better.”

 

Copyright © 1996 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Washington D.C.


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