Coia wins Laborers presidency

Slate, virtually assuring the president of reelection in the union's first rank-and-file election.

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Laborers Union General President Arthur A. Coia easily won reelection over a challenger with alleged Mafia ties, in the first direct, rank-and-file vote the corruption-plagued union has ever held.

But Laborers dissidents also claimed victory - and saw potential trouble for Coia - in yesterday's results from ballots cast since late November. Coia's 67 percent majority was overshadowed by the 78 percent landslide for a milestone reform referendum that Coia's forces had worked to defeat.

"I think it's a historic day for the Laborers. It's a victory not only for me but for the union," Coia, a Rhode Islander, said in a telephone interview from Laborers headquarters near the White House.

But Herman Benson, president of the Association for Union Democracy said: "Coia has a problem.

"Coia was elected with only 45,000 votes from a voting membership of almost half a million. That's kind of pitiful - not a tremendous expression of support" against a little-known opponent who mounted "practically no campaign at all."

Benson added: "It shows Coia didn't have a very effective machine" for the rank-and-file election.

"I disagree with that," Coia said. Members voted on their belief "that I am not only a forceful leader in the Laborers, but also in the labor movement."

Like Benson and some Laborers dissidents, the Justice

Department was heartened by the conclusion of a comparatively smooth-running and clean election.

They were particularly pleased by the referendum vote to scrap the current system of electing the union's top international officers by delegates - traditionally hand-picked by union leadership - to a convention every five years.

Instead, the 13 vice presidents on the union board will face a direct vote by the rank and file in the next election in 2001.

The Justice Department has said that the old system lent itself to abuse by a corrupt elite who let the mob dominate the union for most of this century.

Last September, at the Laborers convention in Las Vegas, delegates elected all of Coia's allies on the Unity Slate, and, on a voice vote, raised his salary by 19 percent to $250,000.

"Coming on top of last week's Teamsters victory" for reformer President Ron Carey, the Laborers referendum outcome "makes this a great day for union democracy," Benson said.

But he said the turnout percentage - in the mid-teens - shows that grass- roots organizers have a lot of work to do before they can exploit the new potential for democracy in the Laborers.

For years, Benson's Brooklyn-based group has styled itself as an organizing and teaching ground for reformers in the Teamsters, the Laborers and other unions with traditions of autocratic rule and links to organized crime.

"We are thrilled with the referendum," said Craig Oswald, an assistant U.S. attorney from Chicago who has devoted several years to the Laborers case, including the 1994 draft racketeering complaint against Coia and the union that set the stage for this year's experiment in union democracy.

That document accused Coia of conspiring to divert pension funds to organized crime and of tolerating mob influence in the union. But when Coia and his lawyers proposed launching an internal cleanup of the union, the government agreed to a February 1995 pact that permits the government to step in and seize control if it deems that the purge is not working. The pact expires in February 1998.

The agreement also triggered negotiations for election reforms. Coia's team agreed to some reforms for this year's elections, including independent supervision of the first mandatory secret ballot for local delegates in the union's history, plus rank-and-file election of Coia and the second-in-command (who ran unopposed).

The union also agreed to put the question of the rank-and-file election of other officers to a referendum vote. The union came to terms after the federal team threatened to exercise its takeover option about a year ago.

Coia said that his team wasn't opposing election reforms, but rather educating outsiders to the reasoning behind the traditional election system.

Coia - who has acknowledged the union's legacy of corruption, but denies any wrongdoing himself - said that the delegate system was built around the union's decentralized system of locally based collective-bargaining.

"But if the rank and file want to be part of this," Coia said, "that's fine. If they think that they want to participate, that's fine." Coia said that he and his officers maintained neutrality on the referendum question - as the government had insisted. (SEE CORRECTION ABOVE)

As for his future as the man elected to lead his union into the 21st century, Coia stressed his desire to build on his organizing successes in the United States and Canada. "We are talking to labor leaders in Portugal, Spain" and elsewhere in Europe about joining the union and "being part of our vast and lucrative pension funds."

Below are the results released in Chicago by Stephen B. Goldberg, the union election officer who oversaw the balloting.

On the question of how to elect executive board members in the 2001 elections, the result was: direct ballot by members 49,964 or 78 percent; convention votes by delegates 14,246 or 22 percent.

For a five-year term as general president, Coia received 45,626 votes, or 67 percent. Bruno Caruso, president of the Chicago Laborers District Council and a large local there, won 22,446 votes, or 33 percent.

From Rhode Island's 11 locals, Coia won 4,238 votes to Caruso's 128 (including a 1,338-to-49 margin win in his home Local 1033 of Providence municipal workers).

The union's only large block of anti-Coia dissidents helped Caruso carry the Mail Handlers Division by a 4,016-to-3,292 margin, a result that Coia said puzzles him after what he called his efforts to improve relations with the Mail Handlers.

Larry Adams, the president of the biggest Mail Handlers unit, Local 300 of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, called the result "a protest over the history of proprietary leadership of the Laborers by the Coia and Fosco families - it's like a dynasty."

Coia's late father, Arthur E. Coia, was the union's No. 2 officer, a position the younger Coia held until he became president upon the death of Angelo Fosco of Chicago - also the son of a Laborers president - in February 1993.

Caruso is a relative unknown among the Northeast-based Mail Handlers, Adams said. The draft RICO complaint against the union lays out allegations that Caruso has family ties to the Chicago Mafia - the traditional center of Laborers Union power.

Caruso has denied that he has mob ties. He could not be reached for comment on the election results yesterday.

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