Coia, Laborers Celebrate State Of Union

He blasts his critics and looks toward renomination at the union's convention.

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

Related story:This week's Laborers convention presents challenges for Coia

LAS VEGAS -- Amid marching bands, laser lights and watchful federal agents, Laborers Union General President Arthur A. Coia blasted his critics yesterday as "anti-worker, anti-union enemies" whose "vicious lies" are "the price we must pay to protect our members and their families."

More quietly, Coia's convention team moved to win big pay hikes for him and other officials, while raising dues on their 750,000 members, partly to pay for the in-house anti-corruption unit he formed to avert a government takeover of the Laborers last year.

Coia, who will be renominated against weak opposition today for a five-year term, will have his annual base salary increased from $201,624 to $250,000, if the convention agrees and if he goes on to win reelection later this fall.

Neither proposition seemed much in doubt among the 2,200 delegates gathered for the union's 21st convention in a hall decked out with sunburst colors suggesting the neons of the famous strip of casinos outside.

In preparation for Coia's entrance, the crimson-clad Star of Nevada marching band played the anthems, giant video screens flashed a sunny version of the union's recent struggles and a laser show played over the rafters.

Then the theme from Rocky rose and Coia strode through the crowd, kissing a baby and distributing hugs and high-fives among his supporters. From the New England contingent came the chant "Coia! Coia! Coia!"

A hoarse-sounding Coia then reported optimistically on "the state of the union," particularly its advances in public relations, training and organizing. The speech was emotional but short on specifics. His attack on critics and his reference to "troubling revelations" and "disturbing truths," for example, were oblique references to the Laborers history of mob domination that came to a head on Coia's watch.

Under threat of a government takeover, Coia struck an agreement with the Justice Department that permitted him to keep his job and begin an in-house cleanup. The government can take over the union if it deems the anti-corruption effort unsuccessful -- until February 1998, when its power under the agreement expires.

The government had to threaten such a takeover last year to secure the new election rules in force at this convention -- hence the presence of a team from the Justice Department that is monitoring the first secret ballot in Laborers history.

The only sour note for Coia was a ruling late in the day by the union election officer that the union itself had violated the reformed election procedures by permitting AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney to campaign for Coia before the convention.

The only peep of dissent on the convention floor came from Jeff Perry, treasurer of a Mail Handlers local in New York, who stood on a point of order to request that the delegates be issued printed copies of the convention rules before their adoption was voted upon.

"Since I see how money is being spent so lavishly here, I think we can afford that," said Perry. Otherwise, he said, a convention supposed to be bringing unprecedented power to the rank-and-file would actually be "a sham democracy."

"Well, brother, your point is well-taken," answered the presiding Coia. Then he called for "ayes' from delegates "who don't think that this is a problem" and "nays" from those who disagreed.

The division appeared difficult to call. "The ayes have it," Coia declared and the rules were immediately adopted without discussion -- or the printed copies sought by Perry.

In a Mail Handlers caucus later, Perry denounced the raises for officers, as well as a per capita dues increase -- items that he said may also be adopted this week with no more discussion than the rules.

Perry calculated the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the dues hike would raise from his division and said, "We need that money for Mail Handlers organizing, not for mobbed-up leaders of LIUNA (the Laborers International Union of North America)."

Other officials described the dues hike as necessary and proper.

To the scattered and outnumbered dissidents, Coia's theatrical debut yesterday reflected an aura of conspicuous consumption at a convention representing some of organized labor's humblest callings: asbestos-removal, food-processing, construction site preparation.

Besides their per diem checks, arriving delegates were issued oak framed wall clocks and gold-braceleted women's watches bearing the LIUNA logo, an array of shirts and tote bags, and invitations to an "off-Broadway show" today, to be followed by a party at the "oasis" on the grounds of the Flamingo hotel and casino.

Part of each delegate's convention kit is a golf shirt bearing the "Clinton-Gore-96" logo on the breast. Coia also has sets of golf clubs -- engraved as convention commemoratives -- to give away to visiting speakers, who included Sweeney.

Coia joked with Sweeney about the troublesome publicity he has had since he and President Clinton swapped golf clubs at around the time that the Justice Department delivered a draft racketeering suit charging that he was running the union for the benefit of organized crime.

That drew attention to the backdrop to this week's drama: the union's efforts to reelect Mr. Clinton, with whom Coia has worked hard to ally himself -- through contributions and support on free trade and other issues before Congress -- since he become president of the union in February 1993.

As often as Coia and his fellow Laborers officers spoke out for Mr. Clinton and congressional Democrats yesterday, there seemed to be an endorsement of his work from Washington.

Transportation Secretary Federico Pena appeared, by satellite, from a studio overlooking the Washington Monument. He chatted with Coia, calling him, "Arthur," and thanking him for the Laborers' endorsement of Mr. Clinton.

House Minority Leader Richard B. Gephardt also visited by satellite and got the day's biggest ovation when he fantasized aloud about winning back Democratic control on Election Day and about the day when Congress convenes next January "and I'll take that gavel from [Republican Speaker] Newt Gingrich."

Pena, Gephardt and Sweeney all praised Coia for his reform efforts. And, using even harsher language than Coia had, Gephardt and Sweeney portrayed the criticism of the union as the handiwork of Republicans who fear organized labor's spending against them and oppose "working Americans."

Coia's flashy convention kickoff pointed up a gap between the political haves and have-nots in his union that could not have been more striking.

Arriving at the Las Vegas Hilton, Coia challenger Bernard "Barney" Scanlon of New York found the hotel had no room for him.

"I'll find one," Scanlon said with a shrug as he manned the gate to the convention hall, handing out yellow leaflets with a lone volunteer supporter.

What he may not find at this convention, Scanlon volunteered, is the 5-percent delegate support he needs to get on the fall ballot against Coia.

Scanlon did get an unexpected boost, however, when the union officer in charge of the election, Stephen B. Goldberg, ruled that the union violated its new election reform regulations by permitting Sweeney to campaign on behalf of Coia before the convention.

Goldberg ordered the union to give Scanlon and another candidate, Bruno Caruso, five minutes each on the convention dais today "to engage in such campaigning as they wish."

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.

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