The Boston Globe

Cleaning Up The Laborers

Thomas Oliphant, Globe Staff

July 7, 1996


By coincidence, I happened to be in Arthur Coia's office on the 39th anniversary of his membership in what has to be the most fascinating union in the country - the Laborers' International Union of North America, of which he is president under unique circumstances.

Coia heads a 750,000-member union that epitomizes the embattled movement's recent efforts at renaissance; its widely applauded successes at organizing new and traditional industries form the core of the AFL-CIO's vigorous crusade to spread an important workplace gospel.

And yet Coia is also a guinea pig in an unprecedented experiment to see if a union can truly rid itself of the disgusting virus of corruption, the ultimate double-cross of hard-working members that occurs when organized crime's influence in a union becomes systemic. Under the eyes, ears and nose of the Justice Department - which could act tomorrow to have the union immediately taken over by a court - Coia has had to institutionalize a reform process under the total control of outsiders.

What makes the Laborers-Justice Department experiment so important is the union itself. As Coia notes proudly, it is easily "the most diverse union in the AFL-CIO." Its members work in more than 40 occupations; the image of the unskilled guy on a construction site with a pick and shovel is laughably obsolete. Today, it's heavy machinery and highways, and hazardous waste disposal and health care. Among its many organizing projects, none hit closer to the core of why unions exist than efforts to win elections at chicken processing plants in the South.

Coia's Laborers are also out front politically. No union is more central to the AFL-CIO's $35 million effort to make Congress Democratic again or to reelect President Clinton. Needless to say, the union activity has attracted the eye and ire of Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has attacked the Laborers and Coia with special vigor. Not coincidentally, a key Judiciary subcommittee has scheduled hearings into the union's seamy past and controversial present for later this month under a key Gingrich acolyte, Bill McCollum (R-Fla.).

If it were a fact-finding inquiry, the hearing would be uplifting.

In November of 1994, more than a year into Coia's presidency, the Justice Department showed up with a draft racketeering complaint, citing years of classic corruption centered in New York, Missouri, Ohio and Illinois locals and district councils. Instead of fighting it, the union signed a consent decree, which the department could file in federal court.

That, however, would mean a government takeover - a messy, and expensive proposition given the chaotic experience in recent years with the Teamsters.

The alternative was for the union to proceed under an unbelievably elaborate and intrusive program that is reviewed by career department lawyers on an almost weekly basis. They like it, courts that have had dealings under it have praised it, and for good reasons.

The clean-up is being run by an inspector general, a former FBI agent with a no-cut contract. He reports to a special counsel to the executive board who comes stright from the organized crime and rackteering section of the Justice Department. And the hearing officer and lawyer who hears appeals from his rulings each have backgrounds in fighting organized crime from US Attorneys' offices. In addition, the union elections procedures are being overhauled by an academic expert with similar autonomy; this fall, Coia and the secretary-treasurer will be subject to direct election by the membership, the first in the Laborers' history, and a system that all unions should emulate.

On top of that, any lawyer or public official with a legitimate purpose can walk in and ask Coia anything about himself or the union, and he may not refuse his cooperation. Moreover, the Feds retain total freedom to pursue any criminal or civil action they choose at any time.

"The cloud over this union was a real one for many years," Coia says now, well aware that he and his late father bear a direct responsibility for that cloud. "But we're the better for all this. You can't do reform internally because you don't have the power to get the information you need to act and make it stick. But a government takeover won't work either. This is the way to meet it head-on."

You can't prove a negative, but if this isn't reform the animal doesn't exist. It's interesting that those who attack it focus on the past, not the present.


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