Friday October 6, 1995

Opposing labor leaders join to castigate Republicans


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer


Two national labor leaders, sounding familiar themes of a union movement on the defensive, last night denounced congressional Republicans for what they described as an "unprecedented" attack on working Americans and said organized labor has to be more media-wise and politically saw y to meet the threat.

The Rhode Island appearance of AFL-CIO president Thomas R. Donahue and Arthur A. Coia, general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, comes three weeks before the first-ever contested election for the top job in the 13 million-member AFL-CIO.

Donahue is running to keep the post he took over two months ago, and he is trailing. Coia is supporting Donahue's opponent. The contest will be decided at the AFL-CIO national convention in New York, starting Oct. 23.

Donahue, addressing several hundred delegates to the Rhode Island AFL-CIO constitutional convention at the Westin Hotel, said the labor movement is losing the public-relations battle.

"This is a highly moral institution," Donahue said. "But we haven't done the job of convincing the nation that that's true."

There are few substantive differences between the two sides of the national struggle. Both agree that organized labor must grow by organizing workers in traditionally nonunion industries, and must adopt a more aggressive public posture.

The fight started earlier this year, when a group of dissident AFL-CIO board members, Coia among them, mounted an unusual public challenge to the federation's longtime president, Lane Kirkland, calling his leadership too complacent in the face of a decades-long drop in union membership and influence.

Coia said he and others originally asked Donahue to take on Kirkland. Donahue declined, then took over as president in August, when Kirkland retired. By then, the dissidents had turned to John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International, and are now committed to him, Coia said.

"It was a matter of who came first in a time of needed change," Coia said.

Coia's active role in the national union struggle came shortly after he diverted troubles in his own union.

In November 1994, federal prosecutors, citing systemic corruption and organized-crime domination, threatened to file a racketeering suit against the Laborers, and demanded that Coia step aside.

After three months of closed-door negotiations, Coia and the Justice Department signed an unusual agreement that left Coia in charge of a union anticorruption campaign.

The new AFL-CIO leader will be elected by member unions, alloted delegates according to size. Sweeney claimed in a statement yesterday that 58 percent of the delegates had committed to him. Donahue last night put Sweeney's support at about 53 percent and said the election was still up for


Donahue told the delegates that the Republican-run Congress has threatened or moved against nearly every pillar of pro-labor and socialservice legislation. He said, for example, that proposed cuts to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would increase workplace injuries by 50,000 a year.

"I don't know a single person in the nation who voted for that," Donahue said.

To meet the threat, Donahue said, he has doubled the federation's organizing staff, plans to double it again, and has set aside $5 million for organizing, a figure he said will rise to $20 million in three years.

Coia, a Providence native, told the delegates that union leaders must excite their members and lead "by example and not by demand."

He said leaders must follow the example of union founders, including that of his father, the late Laborers executive Arthur E. Coia, and do what is "good, right and, above all, moral."

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