Charges against Coia could be problematic
for AFL-CIO president
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
Laborers Union President Arthur A. Coia and
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney are close allies.
WASHINGTON -- In the three years since the
Justice Department said Arthur A. Coia was"controlled by"
the Mafia, no image has better captured the Laborers Union leader's
fight for his good name than his moment of acclaim from AFL-CIO
President John J. Sweeney, on a stage in Las Vegas last year.
"Arthur Coia is a standup union leader!"
Sweeney declared to 2,100 cheering delegates, capping Coia's kickoff
-- lit by lasers and buoyed by the theme from Rocky -- of the
September 1996 Laborers convention that would launch Coia's victorious
Only later did it emerge that Sweeney had
delivered his homage to Coia in defiance of a union election-officer's
ruling that it was an impermissible endorsement -- paid for by
Sweeney's favors to the Laborers general
president -- he also made Coia the first chairman of the AFL-CIO's
new organizing committee, in 1996 -- may become a liability, now
that Coia, a native of Rhode Island, faces fresh charges of mob
Sweeney's dealings with Coia also illustrate
how Sweeney, the standard-bearer of labor's bid to reverse a long
slide toward political impotence, came to rely on the leader of
a union with a well-documented history of violence,
Mafia ties and pilferage from the funds of its blue-collar rank
The spotlight on the Laborers, along with
the focus on illegal financing in last year's Teamsters election,
once more underlines organized-labor's troubled relations with
its own black sheep.
"These scandals are sure to affect the
image" that Sweeney has tried to project, "of a new,fresh,
uncorrupted labor movement that stands in support of social justice,"
said Herman Benson, of the Association for Union Democracy, a
left-leaning advocacy group based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Coia, 54, was charged Thursday by a union
prosecutor with having ties to mobsters and taking kickbacks from
a union vendor.
The charges grew out of an internal investigation,
headed by a former federal prosecutor hired by Coia, meant to
clean up corruption in the Laborers' Union.
If Coia is found guilty during a secret union
disciplinary proceeding, he will lose his $254,000 job as Laborers
An AFL-CIO spokeswoman said Friday that officials
have yet to consider whether Coia should be permitted to keep
his prestigious chairmanship of the labor federation's organizing
IN SPEAKING ON COIA'S behalf at the 1996
convention, Sweeney defied the ruling of a law professor hired
to ensure fair balloting.
Asked why he didn't obey the election-officer's
ruling, Sweeney responded: "Why should I? I don't answer
to him," saying he answered instead to officers of the AFL-CIO.
The union-paid election-monitor's job was
created as part of an agreement that Coia negotiated with the
Justice Department in 1995, forestalling a federal takeover of
the Laborers and his own ouster. The same pact created the in-house
cleanup unit that charged Coia last week.
To dissidents inside the Laborers Union,
Coia's role in Sweeney's own rise suggests a possible explanation
for the AFL-CIO president's support for Coia: political debt.
In February 1995 -- just as he was nailing
down the reform deal with the Jusice Department -- Coia was one
of about a dozen union leaders who approached then-AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland to ask that he step down.
When Kirkland refused, the union officials
-- intent on reviving their politically dormant movement to battle
the Republican congressional majority -- began to assemble the
building blocks of a coup.
When Kirkland was nudged into retirement
in the summer of 1995, his longtime second-in-command, Thomas
R. Donahue, became interim president of the 13-million-member
By the time Donahue declared his candidacy for president in the regularly scheduled fall election, Sweeney had lined up enough support -- including Coia's -- to be the front runner.
Sweeney's lead was not insurmountable, however,
and Coia was among the Sweeney backers whose support was considered
Donahue approached the September convention
with classic challenger's strategy: to lean as hard as possible
on Sweeney's shakier supporters and see whether Sweeney's slim
majority could be pried apart.
As delegates gathered at the New York Sheraton,
one bloc of Sweeney supporters -- the Carpenters -- bolted on
cue to Donahue's camp, setting the stage for Coia to make his
Over bagels and orange juice on the morning
of Oct. 23, Donahue supporters dangled a plum job in a Donahue
administration as an inducement for Coia to jump Sweeney's ship.
Coia savored the position of "kingmaker," as he put
it during an interview that night.
"Right now you got one guy in a position
to determine the whole presidency of the.AFL-CIO," Coia said.
That, he said, was "not bad for a small-time, hometown guy
from Providence, Rhode Island." Coia stressed, however, that
his political muscle-flexing was for the benefit of his rank-and-file
members, not himself.
There may have been some exaggeration in
that boast. But Donahue's political consultant, Tad Devine, said
the Sweeney and Donahue camps both took seriously the possibility
that Coia could trigger a stampede.
The front runner worked hard to hold Coia
on Oct. 24, the crucial second day of the convention. "Sweeney
stayed in Athur's lap all day," Devine recalled.
IN THE END, Coia stayed with Sweeney, placing
his name in nomination for the AFL-CIO presidency. Coia said at
the time that no inducements were offered for his loyalty.
But Sweeney did confer on Coia a symbol of
high status in his administration. Early in 1996, during the first
AFL-CIO convention under President Sweeney, Coia was named chairman
of the federation's new organizing committee.
Eleven months after Coia helped Sweeney get
elected in New York, Sweeney returned the favor, flying to Las
Vegas -- at Laborers Union expense -- to address Coia's convention.
Sweeney rejected the election-officer's ruling
that six paragraphs of his 17-page speech amounted to an impermissible
endorsement of Coia and read the passages anyway.
Dissidents fumed and two challengers to Coia
were awarded five minutes each to address the convention the next
But in what dissidents took to be a clear
show of the Coia camp's dominance of the convention, half the
delegates staged a disruptive walkout when challenger Bernard
"Barney" Scanlon, 70, of Long Island, N.Y., rose to
claim his five minutes.
Scanlon failed to muster enough delegate
votes to get on last fall's mail ballot for election to the union's
highest office. In that vote, Coia swamped his only challenger
for a five-year term as general president, a top Chicago Laborers
official named Bruno Caruso.
IN LIGHT OF the charges against Coia, one
passage jumps out today from Sweeney's Sept. 23, 1996, speech
to the Laborers: the "entire labor movement owes you a debt
for the courageous work you are doing to root out corruption in
this great union."
In light of this year's political storms
over campaign finances and official access-peddling, Coia's banter
with Sweeney on the dais in Las Vegas jumps out with irony not
intended at the time.
"Now the last time I gave a president
a golf club, the media had a field day with it. It caused a whole
brouhaha and controversy," Coia said, joking about how he
and President Clinton had swapped gifts of fancy golf sticks just
days before the Justice Department presented Coia with its racketeering
suit, on Nov. 4, 1994.
"So I'm going to go one better today,
John," Coia said. Delegates chuckled appreciatively as their
president presented the AFL-CIO president with a handsome commemorative
golf bag, engraved with the logo of The Laborers Union of North
The Journal-Bulletin's Web site, projo.com,
includes an archive of Journal-Bulletin reports on Arthur Coia
dating back to 1995, with links to related sites. Go to http://ww.projo.com/special/coia/main.htm.
Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company