Coia Joins Challenge To Head Of AFL-CIO

The Laborers' Union leader from Rhode Island is part of a group seeking to oust Lane Kirkland.


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- American labor is a house divided.

A powerful bloc of national union leaders has made clear its intention to topple Lane Kirkland, the longtime president of the AFL-CIO.

And now they have enough votes to do it.

A key figure in the looming struggle - and himself a dark-horse candidate for the presidency - is Arthur A. Coia, the Providence-born chief of the Laborers' International Union of North America.

"I think I have the capability," he says.

The unprecedented challenge to Kirkland is a sign of growing fear among American unionists. Their numbers and clout are declining while threats to U.S. labor have increased from global competition and a shrinking base of manufacturing jobs.

Last week, 5 more national unions joined the initial 11 in the anti- Kirkland forces. The insurgents now represent about 60 percent of the votes that will be cast in the AFL-CIO leadership race.

The leader of the opposition, and the front runner to succeed Kirkland, is John J. Sweeney, president of the 1.1-million-member Service Employees International Union.

"The problem with unions is that we are irrelevant to the vast majority of unorganized workers in this country," Sweeney says. He has called for the AFL-CIO to spend more money on organizing and give more power to women and minority-group members.

Other potential candidates to challenge Kirkland are Richard Trumka of the United Mine Workers of America and George Korpius of the International Association of Machinists.

The challengers intend to select a candidate in the next few weeks. The elections are scheduled for October, at the federation's convention in New York City.

Whatever the outcome, a surprising aspect of the struggle has been Arthur Coia's role.

Since taking over the 770,000-member Laborers' International Union in 1993, Coia has portrayed himself as a media-wise model of the "CEO-type" leader that he says is needed at the AFL-CIO.

Coia presidency a long shot

Coia was one of the few union leaders who quietly supported President Clinton's campaign to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. The drive to kill NAFTA was an AFL-CIO priority.

The stand earned Coia a reputation as a freethinking leader with an interest in global issues. More tangibly, his stand helped earn him a "letter- writing friendship" with a grateful President Clinton.

This month, Coia provided the intellectual underpinning for the dissident AFL-CIO movement when he wrote a 10-page letter to fellow labor leaders. The letter has become something of an unofficial platform in the anti-Kirkland campaign.

Coia wrote that many of the AFL-CIO's problems could be solved by reorganizing its leadership, which since the 1950s has been centered on the jobs of president and secretary-treasurer. He says his cabinet-style organization would delegate responsibility - and in the process help put big labor back on the political map.

Nonetheless, Coia's bid for the presidency faces very long odds.

The reason is a Justice Department racketeering investigation into the Laborers' union, and Coia himself.

Last November, the Justice Department delivered a 212-page draft of a civil racketeering complaint to Coia, alleging decades of corruption, violence, undemocratic practices and mob influence in the Laborers.

Although the draft complaint was never filed by the government, it surfaced as an exhibit in a court dispute - recently settled - between Coia and a longtime vice president of the union.

According to court records, the draft complaint alleged that Coia had long associated with organized crime figures, and that he tolerated corruption in his union.

The court records say that the Justice Department draft complaint also alleged that Coia, since becoming president of the union in 1993, had conspired to funnel money from locals in upstate New York to members of the Buffalo Mafia.

Last fall, federal prosecutors sought Coia's removal and a government takeover of the union. Court records show that the prosecutors demanded that Coia step aside as president before any settlement talks could begin.

But within weeks, the Justice Department dropped its demand for Coia's stepping aside, and eventually decided not to file the racketeering complaint, which had taken three years to assemble.

In February, Coia and the Justice Department signed an unusual agreement. It permitted Coia to remain head of the Laborers and, instead of requiring a government takeover, permitted the union to establish an in-house system to investigate corruption and organized crime influence.

The Justice Department retained the right to file a complaint if the union's cleanup efforts fell short.

Coia has denied the draft complaint's allegations against him.

Asked recently how publicity surrounding the Justice Department probe had affected his standing in the ruling councils of the AFL-CIO, Coia said, "It doesn't bother them. . . . They recognize what a draft complaint is."

Coia said he had "openly spoken about" the Justice Department matter to fellow AFL-CIO leaders during the February convention that gave rise to the current challenge to Kirkland.

"The leadership of what I'm dealing with understands that those issues had to be developed into a so-called draft complaint . . . me being president" of the Laborers, Coia said.

As for the in-house anticorruption effort, Coia said it was his initiative: "This is my process . . . my suggestion, my development and my implementation of it. Mine."

Because of the Justice Department probe, Coia says, he would stand for election against Kirkland only if drafted as the unanimous choice of the insurgents.

Nevertheless, he has not been coy about helping to organize the long- simmering challenge to the 73-year-old Kirkland, who is only the fifth president in the 109-year history of the American Federation of Labor and its successor organization, the AFL-CIO.

"The fact that (Coia's) still a player . . . speaks to the fact that he represents the type of change" the challengers are seeking, says Victor Kamber, a Washington labor consultant.

And Kirkland - hailed when first elected, in 1979, as a rare union leader, an intellectual with a world view - isn't leaving without a fight. Nor have his supporters shrunk from the fray - once they recovered from the shock of seeing it go public early this month.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has written to the members of his union, citing Kirkland's staunch support of issues dear to them.

Edward J. McElroy, second in command of the teachers' union and a former chief of the Rhode Island AFT, notes that Kirkland has always marshaled AFL- CIO resources to lobby Congress for the preservation of key education programs.

McElroy has also said that Kirkland may be taking the blame unfairly for problems that the chief of a loose labor federation cannot readily solve, because it is such an array of conflicting interest groups.

A possible face-saving compromise, put forward by the Kirkland loyalists, would have Kirkland reelected without further public warring. Then, early in the new term, he would quietly step down.

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.

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