The Providence Journal-Bulletin

Laborers May Pick More Than A President

In A Milestone Referendum, The Union's Members Will Decide How To Choose The Poewerful Executive Board.

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

Nov. 24, 1996

WASHINGTON -- Ballots were mailed last week to give members of the mob-tainted Laborers Union a choice that may mean more to their future than any vote they cast this political year.

Besides the contest between incumbent general president Arthur A. Coia of Barrington and challenger Bruno Caruso, a Chicago union leader with alleged Mafia links, Laborers face what one official calls a "once in a lifetime" referendum question on union democracy.

The choice is whether to choose the powerful union executive board by a new system - direct, secret ballot of the rank and file - or by the traditional method, delegate votes at the union convention.

In years past, the old system lent itself to abuse, according to the Justice Department.

"There's only one thing that dirty unions fear more than RICO (the federal anti-racketeering law) and that's one-man, one-vote," says one union official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The election is a milestone in the government's long struggle to clean up the union and create democratic habits that will keep it clean after federal monitoring authority expires in 1998.

Some students of organized labor are closely watching the Laborers referendum and the Teamsters election for signals of whether the union movement at large is ready for the kind of democracy that ordinary American citiizens take for granted.

Other unionists in and out of the Laborers reject that analogy, noting that most international unions operate on the delegate-election system, a form - when properly run - of representative democracy.

But a legacy of corruption has separated the Laborers from most international unions.

"This union does not belong to organized crime or to any individual leader," Paul E. Coffey, chief of the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Racketeering section, said Feb. 1, when he and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno unveiled the Laborers election reform package that included the referendum question. It "belongs to the members who will now get a chance to control their own destiny."

But Coia demonstrated at the convention that nominated him for reelection in September that the compromise election reform package left one key to the members' destiny firmly in his hands.

Coia dominated the four-day convention in Las Vegas. All 14 executive board candidates on Coia's Unity Slate won, most without opposition. Only Caruso polled enough delegate votes to oppose Coia on the fall election - which runs until the vote count begins Dec. 16.

Along the way, the delegates accepted a broad package of constitutional amendments from Coia's board. The capstone was a 19 percent raise for Coia - to $250,000 a year - plus broad, new powers for the board.

"When the union signed the consent decree with the government, we thought we were going to have this great reign of justice and all, but we haven't had nothing," says Alex Corns, a hod carrier from Daly City, Calif., who lost a bid for vice president this year.

"We had a convention where they raised our dues, where they took away our death benefit, where they voted themselves all kinds of new powers. If this was corporate America, these clowns would have been out the door, but instead they give Coia a $50,000 raise."

THE CASE for the old system appears in an anonymously printed broadside - bannered "Laborers for Justice" and mailed recently to union members around the country.

The "Laborers for True Justice are appalled that some in our union want to take the election of Vice Presidents out of the hands of delegates who know the candidates personally, and give that responsibility to rank & file members who do not!" says the letter.

That letter said the Laborers convention in Las Vegas two months ago showcased "a strong, committed union that has been revitalized" by the new reforms.

Joe Howard, vice president of a Reno, Nev., local of miners and cement workers, says he supports the current system of delegate selection because locally elected delegates tend to be active members who are well-acquainted with union affairs and better able than average rank-and-filers to cast informed votes for national office.

"The guy out running a vibrator or shoveling concrete in the field, who rarely goes to union meetings, will just be filling in the dots when he votes. He's not going to know these people."

Howard dismisses the argument by dissidents that delegates can be manipulated by the union leaders who provide perks at pleasant convention locations every five years. "Nobody ever came up to me and said, 'You got to vote for so-and-so because he sent you here.' My members sent me there and my vote is not for sale," Howard says.

Robert D. Luskin, the lawyer for the current board of union officers, says headquarters is keeping its promise with the government not to fight against the direct, rank-and-file option on the referendum.

THE ELECTION reforms were an outgrowth of a draft racketeering complaint that the Justice Department served on Coia two years ago this month. The complaint, under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, said the Laborers were dominated "at all levels" by the Mafia. It accused Coia personally of conspiring to divert pension funds to organized crime and of tolerating mob influence in the union.

(Election Officer Stephen B. Goldberg has ordered the union to make copies of the 212-page RICO draft available to any member willing to pay a copying and shipping fee of about $20.)

Coia denied any wrongdoing and staved off a federal takeover of the union by agreeing in February 1995 to an internal purge of corruption and to election reforms.

In its consent decree with the union, the government retained for three years the right to take over the union if it deems the reform efforts unsatisfactory.

Coia's team resisted the election reforms until the Justice Department threatened to exercise its option to seize the union last fall, according to Craig Oswald, an assistant U.S. attorney from Chicago. The Justice Department sought direct democrary in the form of rank-and-file voting for all the Laborers top-level elections, but compromised in the end. The top two positions were made subject this year to a rank-and-file vote. (Coia's number- two, general secretary-treasurer R.P. "Bud" Vinall of Texas, ran unopposed.)

In lieu of direct voting for all officers, the government gotthe referendum provision, giving members the choice of whether to extend their democratic reach into the Laborers board. But the union negotiators won some key procedural points.

Chief among them was the right to conduct the elections by walk-in vote at the local level.

Mail balloting tends to boost turnout, which could be the "decisive" factor in an election expected to draw less than one-third of the eligible voters, according to Herman Benson of Brooklyn-based Association for Union Democracy.

Luskin says the current board's insistence on walk-in balloting was "not an effort to skew the results" to protect the system under which the current board was elected.

Luskin says the union believed mail ballots were more susceptible to fraud or manipulation than walk-in votes. "Bad guys at the local could simply tell people, 'Everybody bring your ballots in here to use by Wednesday or nobody works Thursday,' " Luskin says.

But Robert Brown, the business manager of Rochester, N.Y., Local 435, and other dissidents say walk-in voters at corrupt locals can still face intimidation by what he called 'a gauntlet of big guys, handing out cards, telling you who the business agent wants you to vote for. You get the message."

Dissidents also argue that union leadership can more readily crank up the turnout of its allies and discourage dissenters from voting at walk-in elections.

The Laborers represent about 750,000 workers nationwide, more than 425,000 of whom are eligible to vote. There are about 6,500 members at 11 Rhode Island locals, all but one of which surprised elections officials by opting for the mail ballot option. (The exception was Local 673, which represents about 160 construction workers on Aquidneck Island.)

Dave Reilly, a South County lawyer who represents the independent election officer in Rhode Island, said he had expected the locals in Coia's home state to opt for walk-in ballots. Reilly said he thinks they took the mail option because it saved locals money and eliminated administrative headaches.

IN A LETTER to fellow Laborers, one dissident who ran a losing campaign in Las Vegas summed up the case for rank-and-file election of officers:

"Under the current system - you scratch my back, I scratch yours - the top officials take care of the delegates and local officials; and, in return, the delegates and local officials take care of the top officials," wrote Bernard "Barney" Scanlan, a construction laborer from Long Island who lost his bid to get on the ballot against Coia.

"Are your grievances ignored? Is your contract violated? Are your safety rules violated? Are your pension funds in jeopardy?" Scanlon asks Laborers. "Does a tiny clique of favorites get the good jobs while you can't even get enough work to keep your insurance benefits?"

Rochester's Brown, who also ran a losing campaign for vice president this year, says the rank-and-file ballot is the best tool for answering such concerns at union's higest level. And, he says, dissent on the executive board could begin to affect spending decisons and other policies.

"It's a closed society down there at headquarters," says Brown. "It's the same thing with any group of people - if nobody speaks out, nothing changes. But if you speak out, other people are going to join in. All you need is one person in there stiring the pot."

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company

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