By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
Nov. 24, 1996
Nov. 24, 1996WASHINGTON -- 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
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
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
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
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