Tuesday October 24, 1995

Coia votes may decide AFL-CIO presidency

RIVALS: Challenger John Sweeney and AFL-CIO president Thomas Donahue vie for the support of the Laborers' International Union of North America.

CRUCIAL VOTES: Arthur Coia, Laborers' International Union of North America general president, may choose the next AFL-CIO president

By JOHN E. MULLIGAN and DEAN STARKMAN Journal-Bulletin Staff Writers


Arthur A. Coia, general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, may hold the swing votes in this week's election of the next president of the AFL-CIO, making him a pivotal figure at a key juncture in the federation's history.

Coia, attending the AFL-CIO's annual convention here, disclosed yesterday that he is considering switching his 750,000-member union's longtime support of the challenger, John J. Sweeney, to the incumbent, Thomas R. Donahue.

The delegates are scheduled to vote tomorrow, in the first contested election in the modern annals of the 13-million-member labor organization.

"Right now you got one guy in a position to determine the whole presidency of the AFL-CIO," Coia, referring to himself, said in an interview. He said the role of "kingmaker" is "not bad for a small-time, hometown guy from Providence, Rhode Island."

Early yesterday, Coia joined several other national union leaders in issuing a reaffirmation of support for Sweeney. But later, he said, Donahue requested his allegiance - and offered to make him the third-ranking officer in the national AFL-CIO.

Coia said he's thinking about it.

"I don't know if Arthur wants to do it," said one union officer in the Donahue camp who is close to the back-room horse-trading. And Coia won't switch, this official predicted, unless he's confident of bringing along enough other unions to seal Donahue's victory.

Tad Devine, a political consultant to the Donahue camp, asserted that some key support for Sweeney is "soft," but he stopped short of predicting a decisive shift to Donahue. If Donahue scores an upset, Devine said, "Arthur will be right in the middle of it."

Coia's sudden emergence as a central figure in the AFL-CIO's power struggle comes just eight months after he narrowly averted a government takeover of his Laborers union.

Last November, the Justice Department gave Coia a document - the draft of a contemplated civil suit - alleging that the Laborers union was dominated by organized crime and that it was undemocratic and systemically corrupt.

The document also alleged that Coia himself had associated with mobsters and had tried to divert union training funds in upstate New York to organized crime figures in Buffalo.

The allegations emerged during civil litigation between Coia and two rival Laborers leaders who have since been eased out of office. The document had expressed the government's intent to oust Coia, as well.

But in February the Justice Department, without explanation, changed course and signed an unprecedented agreement calling for Coia to remain in power and preside over his own program to reform the union.

Also in February, Coia was among the leaders of about a dozen national unions who privately approached then-AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and asked

that he resign the position he had held for many years. Kirkland refused.

But last summer, under challenge from those unions, Kirkland resigned, and the AFL-CIO's executive board named Donahue to serve the remainder of his term.

Since then, Coia has firmly supported Sweeney, the president of the Service Employees International Union, and Sweeney has consistently claimed the support of enough union leaders to win the presidency.

Yesterday morning, Coia signed a letter with 26 other unions in Sweeney's bloc, calling on Donahue and his camp to "cease calling into question our loyalty" to the Sweeney ticket.

But later in the morning, Coia said, over "bagels and orange juice" at the convention hotel, fellow leaders of the Building Trades Council - an umbrella group of construction-industry unions within the AFL-CIO - asked him to accept the position of executive vice president under a Donahue administration.

Right now, that post exists only as a proposal before the convention. The delegates, after loud debate yesterday, agreed not to vote on creating it until they decide the presidency.

The building-trades leaders called upon him to switch candidates, bringing along several smaller building-trades unions, as a means of fostering "solidarity" in the council, which is split over this election, Coia said. Coia said he was "torn between what's right and what's credible." Supporting, and electing, Donahue might bring needed solidarity within the AFL-CIO, he said, but at the potential cost of his own credibility.

A Building Trades Council official, asking anonymity, commented that the offer to Coia is only one of several elements in the elaborate behind-the scenes maneuvering in the presidential race.

Two weeks ago, Coia said, it would have been an "easy" decision to join a decisive shift by building trades unions.

But with the makings of such a shift gelling so late, he said, "you're taking one union (the Laborers) and making them the ultimate kingmaker."

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