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
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
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.